Review: Follies

Get yourself down to The John Cooper Theatre to see Stephen Sonheim’s Follies. It is my favourite musical and Pick Me Up Theatre have created a wonderful cabaret version.

Follies by Pick Me Up Theatre

The songs and book are exactly in place but the director, Robert Readman, has made it work in an intimate space and as such it feels quite different from the London production.

It is filled with superb harmonies, witty lyrics and bittersweet observations about the past. The songs are driven by the fears and inner feelings of its characters and as such it is the beginning of pure musical theatre.


It is cleverly constructed as all Sondheim musicals and the book is by James Goldman, a perfect fusion of talent. The characters are real and their disillusionment is cleverly set in this world of theatrical illusion.

The ghosts of the past physically act as a reminder of lost hopes and possibilities. The director understands the genre and has shaped an excellent production.

Superb atmosphere

Astounding… the cast of Follies

It is set in an old theatre which housed The Weismann Follies between the wars and as it is closing all the previous artistes have been invited to a last reunion party. The lighting by Adam Moore conjures up the atmosphere superbly. The music is supplied by the pianist and MD Barbara Chan who accompanied superbly throughout.

Enter the chief protagonists: Sally Durant played by Tracey Rea, Phyllis Rogers played by Susannah Barnes, Buddy Plummer played by Glynn Mills and Benjamin Stone played by David Radford. We are drawn into a world of regret for the past and unwillingness to face the harsh reality of the present.

The musical numbers are used in two ways, to explore character and emotion. Some are a pastiche of earlier song styles such as vaudeville.

The song Waiting for The Girls Upstairs captures the essence of the shows mood and is reprised later.

At one point there are eight characters on the stage: present and past selves all holding down complex harmonies.

Heartbreaking songs

The songs sung by Sally, such as the heart-breaking Losing My Mind, tell us of her futile love for Ben; In Buddy’s Eyes explains her husband’s dedication to her and Tracey Rea sang these with exquisite simplicity.

In contrast, Susannah Baines as Phyllis presents her cynicism in Could I Leave You? with the sharp black humour for which Sondheim is justly famous.

Ben’s moving renditions of The Road You Didn’t Take and Too Many Mornings represent his ultimate regret, while Buddy’s The Right Girl or You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow tell us all we need to know of his misplaced hopes.

Both actors inhabited their character with utter conviction and their younger selves were energetic and poignant.

There are some cracking show-stoppers, including Maggie Smailes and Noel Stabler as the prototype theatrical couple and Sonia Skelton remembering Paris.

Broadway Baby, sung with an unswerving belief in the power of the next audition by Beryl Nairn, was touching rather than world weary and I’m Still Here, beginning as a blues song and ending as an anthem to survival, was safe in the capable hands of Sandy Nicholson.

One More Kiss is a difficult number musically and stylistically but Ruth Russell and Kirsty Hughes, playing the young and old Heidi, managed to pull it off without excessive sentimentality.

A special experience

A contender…
The whole chorus were astounding, whether parading as show girls or dancing in full stage numbers.

But Readman allowed the music to lead, using solos where more ambitious shows have used expensive full cast numbers.

I saw the original 1987 show and also the recent National Theatre production twice, however this version was a solid contender. The director has offered us a special experience.

The descent into fragmentation and madness during the surreal sequence signalled by Love Land was masterfully achieved led by the music, and as always with Sondheim, I came home with much to contemplate.