Follies, The Capitol, Horsham, review: HAODS presents a glamorous musical with a truly poignant story

Andrew Donovan as Ben and Audrey Lucas as Phyllis. Picture by Sam Taylor
Andrew Donovan as Ben and Audrey Lucas as Phyllis. Picture by Sam Taylor

This may be HAODS’ glitziest production yet.

With fans, feathers, bright lights, dazzling costumes and a variety of impractical headdresses, Horsham’s amateur stars have truly made Follies a feast for the eyes.

The band, under the direction of James Lelean, accompany the extravaganza beautifully, capturing the unhinged joy of American musical theatre in the early 20th century and nailing that heady and boisterous sound.

But behind this glamorous facade is a tale of regret, self-deceit and lost youth.

The musical, by James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim, is set in the Weismann Theatre in 1971. Once a bustling Broadway venue, it’s now ready for demolition. But Dimitri Weismann is determined to have one final blowout, inviting his former Follies girls from the ’30s and ’40s to a big party in the theatre. The actresses reminisce, chat about their current lives and even perform some song and dance numbers for a laugh.

Into this walks Sally Durant Plummer, a Follies girl from the ’40s who is married to a salesman called Buddy. She meets former co-star Phyllis, who has married the politician Benjamin Stone. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that all four were friends – Phyllis and Sally were roommates while Ben and Buddy were best pals in school. It also becomes apparent that Sally was romantically involved with Ben but this fell apart when Ben chose to marry Phyllis.

That’s probably the simplest way to explain the knotty backstory. As the evening progresses each character confronts their old feelings, the feelings they still have, the choices they made (or didn’t) and the ways in which life has ground them down. They’re also followed by the ghosts of their younger selves as the play switches between past and present.

It’s a complicated look at human relationships and all the performers present very believable characters.

Audrey Lucas is wonderful as Phyllis, showing a woman who has become bitter and cynical thanks to a marriage that lost its spark decades ago. But she also reveals some conflict, hinting at a strange attachment to her husband in ‘Could I leave You?’

Rachel Farrant doesn’t have as much complexity to work with as young Phyllis but handles the musical numbers and choreography very well.

Martin Bracewell belts out a brilliantly angry musical number as Buddy, expressing the salesman’s chaotic mental state after seeing Ben and Sally kiss. Buddy is sympathetic but silly, singing and dancing in a way that suggests he’s mocking himself.

Matthew Forster has less to explore as the youthful version of Buddy, but really conveys the young man’s yearning for female attention.

Alicia Marson presents young Sally’s upbeat attitude effectively, showing how emotionally invested her character is in her affair with Ben. Siobhan McMahon builds on this as the older Sally, taking her character’s optimism to delusional heights. The idea that she’s lost touch with reality in Act Two is particularly unsettling.

Cameron Rowell is good as the young version of Ben, an outwardly confident and slightly smarmy figure whose moments of insecurity sometimes break through.

However, it’s Andrew Donovan who makes the strongest impression as the older Ben. He’s a cool guy at the start – good with the ladies, adept at smalltalk and rich. But, as the reality of his life hits him, as old memories take over his mind and his current life starts to break apart, he transforms into a desperate and pitiful wreck. His big musical number, ‘Live Laugh, Love’, turns into a nightmare when Ben realises what a fraud he is, forgets his lines and falls to the floor in turmoil. It’s a stunning moment and it adds a very dark streak to a show that still contains a lot of colourful and larger-than-life fun.

Follies is highly critical of the way life and romance is represented in popular entertainment. But this satire wouldn’t be as effective if the showbiz elements were underwhelming.

Thanks to HAODS this isn’t the case. All performers commit wholeheartedly to their roles – twirling canes, tap dancing, singing and adopting American accents. The rest of the cast features: Tess Kennedy, Jane O’Sullivan, Roz Hall, Tim Shepherd, Jackie Shepherd, Lisa Falkner, Hazel Wellcome, Ellie Attfield, Jamie Robbins, Howard Collis, Caitlin Franks, Rebecca Maynard, Becca Bracewell, Sian Elston, Emma Willis and many others.

Directed once again by Yvonne Chadwell, HAODS’ latest production may have a bitter edge, but it’s hard not to leave the theatre smiling when those giddy musical numbers are performed so well.

The world the Follies characters live in may be about style over substance, but there aren’t many who could resist its charms.

Follies played The Capitol, Horsham, from November 6-10.

To find out more about HAODS visit haods.co.uk.

Click here to read our review of HAODS’ previous show, Wendy and Peter Pan.