The London suburb of Bromley is technically already in Kent but better connected than some other boroughs of the capital. The Churchill Theatre is in the middle of its high street in a concrete building, currently half wrapped in scaffolding but the warm staff makes up for it. And after all it is a very glamorous musical tonight by Stephen Sondheim.
Sondheim’s name is a Broadway institution, nowadays mostly known for his musical Sweeney Todd. Follies on the other hand is his homage to the New York stage scene which brought out stars like Mae West and W.C. Fields. The theatre company of the Follies ran from the late 1910s to the early 1940s, so in tumultuous times; I wonder if European witnesses of history would call it a golden era, even if it is referring to the age of musical theatre and its chorus girls. I am thinking of the black and white film 42nd Street, of the mind-blowing backstage tour at New York’s Radio City Music Hall I joined last year and of King Kong. Surely you are entitled to refer to this as a golden era if it was you back then in the limelight on a big show stage staircase and clad in shiny shoes, sequins, plumes and peacock’s feathers. Just before the closure of the theatre in the early seventies (to give space for a car park) a big reunion party takes place and all performers are invited – naturally with the decades wrinkles a grey hair appeared but the acts are still proud of their signatures songs and dance moves and this representation of several generations is the most important message tonight and very refreshing indeed.
There is an impressive amount of people on stage anyway, especially during a tap dance scene in front of a tinsel curtain. Later I read in the program that there were fifty roles cast – meanwhile the orchestra sits at the very back of the stage as well.
It is a nostalgic stroll down memory lane, at times euphoric, other times quite bitter. Thirty years from now, what will your own vanity and what your love still be worth? Who will you be able to impress with the amusements of past decades?
Some of the takes the key actors relive seem outdated, fallen out of time. If they are parodies I gain no political agenda but fail to see much spectacular stage magic in these. But it’s these very personal songs owned by the main characters that get the loudest applause tonight, so I might have to sensitise my receptors on this again. Actually, I cannot wait – think of all the decades of show business I might still discover.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Follies is an amateur production directed by Kevin Gauntlett, Anne Greenidge and Danielle Dowsett, played at the Churchill Theatre until November.