Thursday, November 02, 2006

'Follies' by Stephen Sondheim

2 November 2006

We’ve been really looking forward to the reopening of our favourite local theatre – the Royal Theatre in Northampton. Just after we moved to the area in 1999 the Royal – a small but lovely Victorian proscenium arch theatre was taken into joint ownership with the Derngate (a large 1970s concert hall/theatre immediately next door). This enabled the company to maintain an eclectic mix of theatrical productions and concerts, with large scale commercial productions subsidising the more experimental. The Royal and Derngate was one of the few places in the country to be able to stage Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘House’ and ‘Garden’ – two interlinked plays performed simultaneously with the same cast – actors running between the two theatres to make sure they made their cues.

We enjoyed the development of a programme of innovative in-house productions at the Royal over the last few years under the guidance of the exciting artistic director Rupert Goold. These included a great ‘Othello’, ‘Paradise Lost’ and an amazing interpretation of ‘Doctor Faustus’ which interwove the Marlowe text with a contemporary story about the Britart enfants terribles, the Chapman brothers, defacing Goya paintings. When the theatre closed for a major refurbishment 18 months ago the final production was ‘Hamlet’ set in a disused theatre – the curtain opening to reveal a set which was the precise mirror image of the actual Royal auditorium. During the closure they were unfortunately unable to hang on to Goold (Northampton’s loss was Oxford’s gain and he recently made his directorial debut at the RSC in Stratford) but his place has been taken by Laurie Sansom (who was previously at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough).

After 18 months the Royal and Derngate opened again (on time!) a couple of weeks ago. We made our first visit last Saturday and it’s a fantastic transformation. The public spaces (foyer, bars etc) of the two theatres have been completely combined to create a huge, lofty and open entrance hall with numerous levels and raised walkways. There is a new education/outreach centre (with its own children’s entrance). Both auditoria have been completely refurbished while preserving their distinctly different characters. The Royal has been restored to its 1884 glory – providing a breathtaking contrast when entering from the very modern foyer. It all looks lovely and it was very exciting rediscovering the building after its transformation.

Sansom’s opening production in the Royal is Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Follies’ – a musical about an old theatre about to be demolished. This tale of a reunion of the Follies girls 30 years on was an ambitious undertaking – requiring a huge cast. There are numerous ‘ladies of a certain age’ who revisit the dilapidated theatre and perform their party pieces one last time – shadowed by their younger selves. The masterstroke in this production was to cast local amateurs as the aging Follies girls (with a professional cast playing the leads and the ‘ghosts’). They had a dozen of the stars of the amateur dramatic and operatic societies from Northampton and Kettering – each of whom was fantastic. They each got their moment in the spotlight as the musical gives each ‘girl’ a showpiece number (including ‘Broadway Baby’ and ‘I’m Still Here’). Talking with friends in the interval I was delighted to discover that they had not realised some of the cast were amateurs and could not see the joins.

There were some wonderful song and dance numbers and the choreography where the young ‘ghosts’ shadow the performance of the aging stars was really slick (particularly in the tap routine ‘Mirror, mirror’). I was very pleased to see that the show got a four star review from Michael Billington in The Guardian (on a rare excursion outside London). Overall it was an excellent example of professional/amateur collaboration, a wonderful demonstration of the quality and strength of local amateur theatre and a super way to relaunch the venue. It was great!

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