Staunton challenged by “the American dream” of Follies at the National Theatre

September 2017

You can’t dress up disappointment, says Imelda Staunton of her role in the new five-star National Theatre revival of Follies, supported by Bruno Wang Productions. In an interview with the Telegraph, Staunton, who won awards for her roles in Gypsy and Sweeney Todd, revealed that the play is a “beast” of a show, which gets very dark. “It’s a much bigger challenge than I thought,” she said.

Set in 1971, in the crumbling Weismann Theatre on Broadway – which is due to be pulled down – Follies sees a reunion of old showgirls and their guests, as they relive their youth and get caught up with the ghosts of the past.

The 37-strong cast also includes Tracie Bennett (End of the Rainbow, Mrs Henderson Presents), Janie Dee (Carousel, Hello Dolly), Zizi Strallen, Dawn Hope and opera diva Dame Josephine Barstow.
In the interview, Staunton explained: “It’s about the American dream, about dreams coming true… well, no they don’t actually. But I like work that’s dark, I like finding the pain – and there’s a lot of pain in this.”

Staunton considers Sondheim “the Shakespeare of musical theatre” – and said she approaches his work in the same way as any other serious piece of drama. “The songs are character speeches – it’s not just ‘Oh, we’re going to have a jolly song now’.”

Taking the role of Sally, now a bored housewife with a difficult marriage, was itself a challenge, said Staunton, in another interview, this time with the Evening Standard.

Staunton, 61, admitted: “I never say yes instantly, I never do, I always think I can’t do it. This is a very different sing for me, a very different sing from Gypsy, from Sweeney Todd, so I thought, ‘I can’t sing it’.”

In fact, it took 87-year-old Stephen Sondheim himself to persuade her to take the role, as well as a personal plea from director Dominic Cooke. Staunton revealed that she and Sondheim “know each other well. I said to him, ‘I don’t think I can do it’ and he did say, ‘You can do anything,’ so I thought, ‘Oh, well OK, I’ll give it a go’.”