Follies, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Follies is probably Sondheim’s most traditional musical, in that it has set pieces, dance routines, show girls and, separate songs that don’t bleed into each other. However, it is still complex; the story has great depth and some of the songs are operatic in nature.

It is expensive and complicated to produce, it has a large company, with demanding roles throughout the cast. It needs an orchestra. Full productions of Follies are rare, the last proper one in London was thirty years ago, so when there is a high quality, committed revival such as this on offer, the opportunity needs to be grabbed.

It’s Sondheim, so the material is fantastic. It has some of his most famous songs, the storyline is elegant, and it is almost upbeat for Sondheim, (that means everyone in the cast isn’t going to live out the rest of their lives in abject misery!). It’s the National Theatre, so the production values are top notch. Dominic Cooke and Bill Deamer as director and choreographer have both done a wonderful job. I particularly loved the way each dancer at the reunion had their younger version dancing with them. I also loved the way all the mature dancers paraded down the stairs in a dignified manner wearing evening gowns, while their younger incarnations scrambled in over the rubble at the back of the stage, in their high heels, basques and feathers.

Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Philip Quast and Peter Forbes are the four leads, so the acting and singing are outstanding. Imelda Staunton does an emotionally draining rendition of “Losing My Mind” and Philip Quast’s voice is as amazing as it always is. It has Tracie Bennett and Geraldine Fitzgerald in supporting roles so it has incredible strength in depth. Tracie Bennett is in full on scene stealing mode with “I’m Still Here” sung with a mixture of pain and defiance.

Follies at the National Theatre is fantastic, and given all the elements that went into making it, there was never any doubt that it would be.

Anyone Can Whistle, Union Theatre, 2017

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Anyone Can Whistle at the Union Theatre is an ebullient production of a lesser known Sondheim musical. Originally performed over 50 years ago on Broadway, it is certainly one of his shows that deserves a second hearing.
The storyline is quirky, this production brings out the humour and mayhem very nicely.
It has some great characters; Felicity Duncan is excellent as the power hungry, desperate to be loved politician, Rachel Delooze and Oliver Stanley are both very good as the lovelorn fake investigator and the fake doctor, and their final duet “With so little to be sure of” is a thing of beauty.
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It is packed with fantastic classic Sondheim songs: “Me and my town”, “There won’t be trumpets”, “Parade in town”, “Everyone says don’t”, “Anyone can whistle” and “With so little to be sure of” are all from this show!
The ensemble here are great, the stage can seem a little packed at times, but this works very well for the chase scene and the dance numbers are filled with energy and inventiveness.
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With all the talk of political madness and fake news, the time is right for the revival of this wonderful, undervalued musical and I thoroughly enjoyed this production.
This is a show that is not revived often enough, you should go to see it while you have the opportunity!

Into the Woods, Menier Chocolate Factory, London

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The Menier Chocolate Factory has a history of showing great productions of Sondheim musicals, so I went in with high expectations. This American troupe has transferred here, from off Broadway, having had runs in Princeton and San Diego before that.
They bring a stripped down, lo-fi interpretation of “Into the Woods” that is perfectly suited to the intimate surroundings of this theatre. The whole show, including music, is performed by 11 actors and musicians multitasking, with limited props and set changes. The resourcefulness of the company turn this into an asset and the simple setting allows one to notice new details in the lines and new depths in the characters. All of the players are great, but Andy Grotelueschen is fabulous as both the cow (!) and as Rapunzel’s prince. Patrick Mulrayn, who plays Jack, can belt out a tune too.
The set is quirky and funny, it looks like the inside of a piano reimagined as a Victorian dolls house. I particularly liked the piano keys surrounding the stage.
Shows from the Chocolate Factory often transfer to the West End, and this one surely deserves to, you don’t often see the whole audience stand to clap at the end of a show in London – but don’t wait until it does transfer before you go because this theatre is the  perfect setting for such a gem.