Music is a Time Machine - thoughts on 'Follies in Concert' at the Royal Albert Hall

Follies is a musical about time. A theatre is being demolished to make way for a car park, and an old empresario calls the first and last reunion of his Weismann Follies showgirls. This reunion stirs ghosts for many attending, including Sally and Phyllis, who look back on a time before their unhappy marriages, when ‘life was fun but oh, so intense. Everything was possible and nothing made sense’. Muddling its way through pastiche numbers and ending with a set of fantastical ‘follies’, the music of Follies is as evocative of the past as its plot.

Watching Follies in Concert at the Royal Albert Hall this week churned up some momentous memories for me too. It was whilst playing Young Sally that I met the boy playing her husband - Young Buddy, who I will go on to marry for real in just a few weeks time. In a show that radiates the past, I hear the overture and I’m taken back to looking out onto an empty stage from the wings, adjusting my sequinned dress and feathered head piece. The lyrics still roll off my tongue and the butterflies surface, just as they did at the time.

The production image for the 'Follies' where Emily played Young Sally!

It’s funny how music wraps itself around a memory, a time in your life or an emotion. Excellent musical writing, like that of Sondheim and James Goldman here, captures a real sense of nostalgia. The show didn’t disappoint in bringing those memories to life. With a cast and creative team of musical theatre heavyweights, the dreamy musical direction of Gareth Valentine - realised by the City of London Philharmonic Orchestra, and a Royal Albert Hall filled to the brim with Stephen Sondheim fans, I couldn’t help but be enchanted. The concert set - four giant dressing room mirror frames, was cleverly used to tell what can be a frenetic story. Beaded dancers spell out to the eye the luscious arrangements, illustrating the rose tinted glasses to the past. The complexities of time played out on the Royal Albert Hall’s stage and I grinned, giggled and even shed a tear.   

© Dan Wooller Peter Polycarpou, Ruthie Henshall, Christine Baranski and Alex Hanson

The cast is led by a sensational principle quartet made up of a deliciously derisive Christine Baranski (as Phyllis), charming Alex Hanson (as her tycoon husband Ben), authentically bruised Peter Polycarpou (as the ever-suffering Buddy) and Ruthie Henshall - who played Sally with all the damage, passion and sentimentality I could have wished for. Her ‘Losing My Mind’ left my hairs standing on end. Shadowed by the ghosts of their former selves, the group displayed complex dynamics that were genuinely impressive for a one-off concert. I adored the two young couples - Amy Ellen Richardson, Alistair Brammer, Laura Pitt-Pulford, and Jos Slovick - who reflected the undelivered dreams of the characters’ youth with buoyancy and vitality, making the inevitable turmoil of their older selves even more painful.

While I will always have a bond to this Sondheim musical, I hope my story will play out a little differently to my character’s... Yet every time I hear the overly-sanguine ‘You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through’ I will be transported in time.