You wouldn’t think Anita Dobson would be able to steal a show from Christine Baranski, Ruthie Henshall, Betty Buckley and Lorna Luft, but that’s exactly what the 65-year-old former EastEnder did in Follies In Concert, bringing down the roof with a tap number that had just the right hint of “I’m too old for this shit but I’m gonna do it anyway” showbiz pazzazz.
Dobson hasn’t done a musical since she appeared as Mama Morton in Chicago more than a decade ago, and the old broads who gather, with husbands in tow, at the start of Stephen Sondheim’s revered show haven’t done one since god knows when – although it was probably sometime between the wars because those are the halcyon days the characters are gathering to reminisce about.
The plot couldn’t be simpler: Former members of a theatrical revue assemble for a reunion in the theatre where they once strutted their stuff. Chief among them are unhappily married couples Phyllis (Baranski) and Ben (Alexander Hanson) and Sally (Henshall) and Buddy (Peter Polycarpou). The theatre is due to be torn down, which serves as a metaphor for the crumbling of old dreams and troubled relationships.
But Sondheim, working here with book writer James Goldman, never takes the simple option, so he fills the place with ghosts of the characters’ earlier selves. It’s a hugely ambitious work and hugely expensive to mount as a flouncy full-blown theatrical production. In fact, the original 1971 Broadway incarnation closed in the red. It’s also Sondheim’s most tinkered-with work, with scenes and songs shifted around or cut entirely, and as a critical favourite rather than a crowd-pleasing blockbuster it hasn’t been seen in London since a 2002 production at the Royal Festival Hall.
It is, however, one of the lyricist-composers most wonderful works when it’s done properly – as indeed it was in 2011, when it returned to Broadway with Bernadette Peters beautifully emoting on Losing My Mind and Elaine Paige attacking I’m Still Here with showbiz-survivor gusto. Those seminal numbers were tackled by Henshall and Buckley respectively, the former with more bite than Peters and the latter out-belting even Elaine.
Formidable turns indeed amongst many others. Liza’s half-sister Luft did a thrilling Broadway Baby, Baranski (so brilliant at delivering bitchy retorts to a man whose become more of a sparring partner than a spouse) nailed the tricky Story Of Lucy And Jessie, and the men had their moments too. Hanson was in particularly fine voice and as his younger incarnation Attitude favourite Alistair Brammer flexed the dance muscles he doesn’t get to use in Miss Saigon.
Director Craig Revel Horwood’s revival solved the problem of costly staging by doing Follies as a concert version. There was no scenery, just a few chairs and the elegant use of mirror frames, but Sondheim’s music – a pastiche of torch songs, vaudeville schtick, Busby Berkeley musicals and Follies both Ziegfeld and Bergeres – is epic enough to fill a hall like the Royal Albert, especially when it’s delivered by The City Of London Philharmonic.
The show sings with comedy and drama too and you don’t need scenery when you have the talent and charisma of 17 leading players backed up by a 12-strong ensemble. Anita Harris, Roy Hudd, Stefanie Powers and Russell Watson were all in there somewhere, which helps explain why there was only one matinee and one evening performance. Getting such a cast together must have been a logistical nightmare (and Jennifer Coolidge was one big-name casualty unable to make it in the end), keeping them together for a long run impossible.
If you missed it, you missed a treat. And if they bring it back I hope they bring back Baranski and Buckley, and Henshall and Luft too if they can. But most of all they have to bring back Anita Dobson. Who knew she was such a super trooper with such nimble feet?
WORDS BY SIMON BUTTON
PHOTOS BY DARREN BELL