One million years ago I came down to London from my home town in Yorkshire and began to work in the theatres of London’s West End, working a followspot (the moving spotlight you see on actors). My first job was at the Victoria Palace on High Society, Richard Eyre’s mixing of The Philadelphia Story (play/film) and High Society (film).
Later I got a job on the London production of Sondheim’s Follies at the Shaftsbury Theatre with Diana Rigg, Daniel Massey, David Healy and Julia Mckenzie. The first time I saw it, when the music started (“Hey up there”) and the ghosts of the Weismann Girls appeared,
I was transfixed. It held me like nothing else. I’ve inherited in a funny mixture from my parents, a love of dancing and classic musicals. In fact it’s not a love. When people break out into dance (because speaking and singing are no longer enough to express the emotions) I feel it in my whole body.
I didn’t work on the show for ,that long – a few months I think. But the thing that stays with me is that the cast really were true stage performers, born at the beginning of the twentieth century and so almost the characters that the musical is actually about: Dolores Gray, Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson, Adele Leigh, Maria Charles, Leonard Sachs, Margaret Courtenay.
The main four, Rigg, Massey, Healy and Mackenzie were amazing. I had the single spot of light on Julia Mckenzie’s upper body as she sang “Losing My Mind”, pulling it into a pinpoint on her face only at the end of the song, the only light on the stage. I was scared stiff. And Gillian Bevan as Young Phyllis reminded me so much of pictures of my Mum in the 1940’s. I rarely went backstage as my followspot was out front behind the Upper Circle audience seats. Probably for the best. I would have just mumbled and dribbled and thrown myself prostrate.
And so on Friday it was off to see the new production at the National Theatre: Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Peter Forbes and Philip Quast and it was absolutely wonderful. Much discussion beforehand because it ran at 2 hours 20 minutes with no interval, so I turned into a camel at 4pm. But it flew by. I have minor gripes. I wish they had left in “Ah! But Underneath!”, Phyllis’ Folly, written for Diana Rigg as she wasn’t a dancer. Similarly I slightly prefer Ben’s Folly “Make The Most Of Your Music” again from the London production only. My major gripe was that the final double-edged past/present Follies sequence looked sad: plastic LED chandeliers and a few drapes. I understand the show costs a fortune to put on and will probably lose money even if every performance is full, but glamour and magic can still be enchanted out of simple stage and lighting effects, and that is the point of that final sequence – to relive the Follies visually with the irony of the character’s “real-life” emotions in their lyrics.
But no matter. The rest of the staging in a half-demolished theatre was perfect, the costumes were stunning, the performances were barnstorming and heartbreaking. There were beautiful moments when the dancing underscored and so heightened the conflicting emotions in the song lyrics (as dance in musicals should – when you can talk no more you sing, when you can sing no more you dance). It’s an amazing team effort of a musical. Everyone is a star in it, but when Josephine Barstow the great opera singer, now 77 years old, sang One More Kiss, dueting with her younger self (Alison Langer), I cried. It was a song that never touched me in the first production but then I am watching it 30 years older now.
Follies runs in my blood. I am privileged to have worked on it so many years ago, and glad I knew at the time, even though I was young, that it was a very special time. And I never thought I would see it again just because it is so difficult to stage.
On Friday I did. I’m a lucky man.