thu 25/07/2024

Follies, Royal Albert Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Follies, Royal Albert Hall

Follies, Royal Albert Hall

Christine Baranski elevates latest Sondheim gala

Hats off here they come: the cast of 'Follies' in concertAll photos by Darren Bell

God love Christine Baranski: Eight years after the Tony and Emmy-winning actress played the supporting role of Carlotta Campion in a semi-staged 2007 production of Stephen Sondheim's Follies in New York, along came the leggy, eternally lithe performer in the same musical, once again in concert form but this time upgraded to a starring role.

And as Phyllis Rogers Stone, the one-time showgirl who misplaced her soul somewhere along the way to becoming a New York sophisticate ice-queen, Baranski took the Albert Hall's two-performances-only salute to Sondheim's 85th birthday and knocked it out of the park. Can London have this supreme talent back again soon, next time for longer?

One intends a hard-working cast no discredit whatsoever in stating that, from this corner at least, Tuesday afternoon's Follies belonged largely to Baranski, or let's just say that she lifted Craig Revel Horwood's sometimes eccentric take on proceedings with every authoritative step. So what if she didn't quite match up in age with her first-rate Ben (Alexander Hanson, in terrific voice on what also happened to his birthday, as we learned during the curtain call)? The celebrated 1985 Follies in Concert with the New York Philharmonic – the bellwether by which all such events will be forever judged – had a Buddy and Sally in Mandy Patinkin and Barbara Cook who are a quarter-century apart in age and it made no difference.

What one-offs (or, okay, two-offs) such as the Albert Hall celebration make possible is the chance to see the best possible performer in that role, and Baranski from her first glittering entrance suggested that she could give the lingering memory of the role's Tony-winning originator, Alexis Smith, a serious run for her money.   

Christine Baranski rehearsing FolliesOne expected her to nail the comedy of the part, which she did, finding the mordant humour in this swellegant society wife whose life choices are thrown into bold relief upon the occasion of the coming together of former showgirls that forms the Sondheim/James Goldman collaboration's slender plot. A take-charge cougar clearly used to treating men as prey, this was a Phyllis who suffered neither fools nor defeat gladly and whose need to play boss extended after the interval to her grabbing conductor Gareth Valentine's baton so as to commandeer Sondheim's score for a phrase or two of her eleventh-hour showstopper, "The Story of Lucy and Jessie". (Baranski pictured during rehearsals, above).

Away from the spotlight, one also glimpsed a savvy anatomist of the death-in-life that the material so pointedly describes. Her Phyllis would live to see another day - something that one can't necessarily say, by contrast, of the less resilient Sally - but not without an ongoing awareness of the hole where her heart once was. As the most prominent of an array of American visitors to the Albert Hall stage that included London semi-regulars Betty Buckley and Lorna Luft, Baranski raised the bar for a company that turned out to be more accomplished in performance than one might necessarily have assumed they would be on paper.

As the feckless Buddy, for instance, Peter Polycarpou seemed to have recovered the vocal prowess distressingly absent from his press night performance last December in the Donmar revival of City of Angels, and both he and Ruthie Henshall, as Buddy's ever-lovesick wife Sally, brought to their parts a residual anger as if to give credence to Buddy's throwaway remark early on that Sally likes to phone her two errant sons not least so she can fight with them. Indeed, Henshall's climactic "Losing My Mind" may not have featured the airborne high notes that this most rending of torch songs can allow, but the actress (on loan from her ongoing West End stand in Billy Elliot) more than compensated with an unexpected and finely felt fury. Here was a Sally none too happy to have been pushed to the emotional limit and beyond.

Elsewhere, Follies proceeds via a superabundance of star turns from the guests at Dimitri Weismann's gathering of ageing follies performers inside a theatre marked for demolition – the space, like many of the lives to which it is playing host, on the verge of collapse. An initially low-key matinee audience began to warm up once a tap-happy Anita Dobson (pictured centre below, with Hanson to her right) led the ladies in "Who's That Woman?", though one wished that Andrew Wright's choreography on that occasion hadn't sidelined the senior generation quite so much. And an arm-waving Buckley plowed gamely into "I'm Still Here" (the song previously delivered by Baranski in New York), not so much inflecting some of Sondheim's most delicious lyrics – "then someone's mother / then you're camp" – as roaring her way through them. 

The early mash-up of "Rain on the Roof", "Ah Paris!" and "Broadway Baby" is tricky at the best of times and had the cacophonous effect here of reducing the Anita Harris/Roy Hudd double-act to an afterthought, and the interval was placed so late that for a while I thought there wasn't going to be one, which is a choice some directors have taken in the past. As it was, the second act consisted pretty much exclusively of the "Loveland" sequence in which the ageing quartet's younger selves come into their own, special mention due this time round to Jos Slovick's Young Buddy, whose very-sweet "soul-stirring" (sung to his newly beloved Sally, decades before the disappointment and deception that would come to define their marriage) was precisely that. 

And Valentine's orchestra – those strings! that brass! – was at its swoony best accompanying Charlotte Page (wife of Alistair McGowan, the concert's somewhat perfunctory Weismann) on the heavenly "One More Kiss", the operetta-style paean to the evanescence of romance whose lyric "all that's beautiful must die" is contradicted every time Follies is staged afresh. At such moments, this show's eternally baleful beauty lives anew. 


One glimpsed in Baranski a savvy anatomist of the death-in-life that the material so pointedly describes


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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I was there for the matinee, I agree with all that is said above. as a whole I felt the performance was under rehearsed, Beautiful Girls has to be fabulous if you get that right the audience will forgive you the rest of the show, it wasnt, the cast looked as if they were walking on thin ice!!. Betty Buckley was fabulous, Lorna Lufts comedic low key Broadway Baby worked, Stefanie was great as Solange, Anita was brilliant in her tap number she made it funny which was great and the oldies did their best I think.Both Ben and Buddy were flawless and the show was Christines all the way. Nice to see Carol Ball in the line-up too.The real gaffe was casting Alistair Mcgowan as Weissman he was awful.

Does anyone know if this performance has been recorded for radio or TV?

I really enjoyed the starfest and it was a real treat to see Baranski, who was superb. I was sitting near the stage and I felt that the sound was poor. Sondheim is all about the words and there was a distortion that meant I could not hear all the lyrics.

I was also near the stage and found it difficult to make out the words. The first "half" was too long; might have been better to have had an additional interval. On the whole it was worth going and great to see Stefanie Powers at close quarters looking and sounding so fabulous 50 years on from the Girl from UNCLE! And Christine Baranski ... It did drag a bit though. I noticed some people voted with their feet and didn't come back for act II. I doubt it would have sustained a run.

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