Devised by the cast
The Spiegeltent, Underbelly Festival Southbank
The National Theatre’s sold out run of Follies ended last Saturday but a little way upstream in the Spiegeltent members of the company briefly offer a coda. Sondheim’s musical looked back on its characters’ lives and the show’s Janie Dee (who played Phyllis) had the idea of the company doing the same with their own experiences.
Each night for this brief four-day run, company members share something from their personal history and offer a song that links to it. The programme will differ each evening with changing participants and material.
With musical director Stefan Bednarczyk at the piano, director Josh Seymour keeps things very simple: a cabaret-style presentation with the cast at tables flanking the stage calling each other forward at the end of their own number. There is no fuss or thrills, just well-planned lighting and an immediate rapport with the audience.
On the first night, after a brief introduction from Janie Dee, Gemma Sutton remembered how fearless she was as a six-year-old performer, recalled her Arts Ed motto “Take a Risk” and then told us about the time when a risqué audition ploy went wrong. Caroline Fitzgerald spoke of the power a song can have and Amée Hobnet confident that she so loved one song that she has sung it for every audition since she heard it—and then showed us why with a bravura performance of “The Girl in 14G”.
Next up was Adrian Grove searching for memories of his late father, a former West Bromwich footballer who suffered from dementia and died four years ago before being joined by Ian McLamon in “I Don’t Remember You” which became a moving parallel presentation of both memory loss through dementia and our own struggle to keep memory of loved ones alive.
Christine Tucker took the audience back to her confident days aged 10 playing in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and then the way that every actor has to handle rejection, maybe at the final casting, for something unrelated to talent.
Alyn Hawke spoke of the grandmother who had a box of tapes of great musicals. Calamity Jane was a particular favourite but seeing male dancers like Kelly and Astaire fired his wish to perform like them and he gave us a medley of tunes from some of those great shows of the post-war years.
In contrast, Lindsay Atherton offered a tribute to two people who have inspired her: an aunt who showed great fortitude when fighting cancer and an elder brother who paralysed after an accident was told he would never walk but fought back and, through sheer determination, got back movement in a digit and eventually walked out of his wheelchair. She celebrated that spirit with a rendering of “Rise Up”.
Janie Dee also took us back to childhood and her fascination at hearing the oboe opening to “Rhapsody in Blue”. “It’s so beautiful,” she asked her mother, “I don’t know what to do.” “Dance,” was the answer, and she did. But, when grown up, her agents didn’t want her to be in musicals and told her to stop dancing if she wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. They didn’t send anyone to see her when she accepted a musical role but someone did go: Peter Hall. He liked her, did take her seriously and 9 years work at the National Theatre followed. A lively performance of “Shall We Dance” suggests that she’s never going to stop!
On Reflection may have been Janie Dee’s idea but she gave the final spot to Vanessa Fisher who spoke of how impressed she was on joining Follies at the power she felt from the women who led the cast. She too looked back to a childhood when confidence was undaunted and suggested that, instead of the old offering the young their wisdom, perhaps it's the children that we should learn from.
But that, of course, isn’t quite the end, for the whole company now join in a final chorus to end an hour of songs and sharing sung so that every word is clear and that though on the one hand a celebration of showbiz is even more a celebration of company spirit, of shared emotion not just with other members of the National Theatre cast who were in the audience but with all of us. These individual performances still have the feel of ensemble of fellows and they make everyone part of it.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton