Janie Dee, who played Phyllis in the National Theatre’s stunning revival of Follies, keeps the musical-theatre magic alive with her On Reflection cabaret. In this intimate hour-long cabaret in the Underbelly spiegeltent on the South Bank, she invites her Follies co-stars to perform a song that resonates with a deeply personal story from their past.
The conceit is no doubt inspired by Stephen Sondheim’s Follies toe-tapper "Who’s That Woman" – aka "The Mirror Number". And where better to host such a reflective revival than in a spiegeltent, or "mirror tent" in Dutch?
The line-up and set changes each night, apparently, but turns have been promised from the likes of Alex Hanson (Follies’ Ben), Jo Riding (Sally), Alison Langer (Young Heidi) and Aimee Hodnett (Young Sandra).
For my show, the second in the run of four nights, I was treated to Janie with Gemma Sutton (Young Sally), Ian McLarnon (TV Interviewer/ cover Buddy/Roscoe), Christine Tucker (Young Phyllis), Adrian Grove (Sam Deems/cover Ben), Sarah-Marie Maxwell (Young Solange/cover Young Phyllis), Alyn Hawke (Cameraman/cover Young Buddy), Dawn Hope (Stella) and Geraldine Fitzgerald (Solange).
Providing the impeccable musical accompaniment from the keyboard is Stefan Bednaczyk. It’s he who starts proceedings, gently fading in over the audience’s chatter with "All Things Bright and Beautiful" – the gorgeous waltz that, as a song, was cut from Follies but nevertheless kept for the show’s glorious overture.
One by one, each of the performers takes to the spiegeltent stage and recounts a story from their earlier days. Each story is illustrated with a photograph that gets pinned to a string of fairy lights upstage, and this then inspires a song that means something to them.
This is, for me, the model of the perfect cabaret: intimate surroundings, personal anecdotes that tell you something about the performer, and songs that are meaningful to the singer. The feeling is one of kinship – close friends gathered by the fireside, sharing stories and songs over a few drinks. And it’s especially moving when the line-up is as strong as this.
Gemma Sutton talked of her childhood on a farm and how her father turned her on to music, then gave us "Taking a Chance on Love" (from Vernon Duke’s musical Cabin in the Sky but better known as an Ella Fitzgerald jazz standard); Ian McLarnon shared his emotional journey to becoming an adoptive father and was inspired by his daughter to sing "Accustomed to Her Face" (My Fair Lady); And Christine Tucker revealed the challenges of working as an actress, and how she was given invaluable career advice from Caroline Sheen before dipping into her "new rep" to sing "And the Beauty is" (Light in the Piazza).
Adrian Grove talked about his career change from doctor to actor and delighted us all with his camped-up "Not Just For Gays Anymore" – the hilarious number written for the 2011 Tony Award host Neil Patrick Harris ("We’re asking every hetero / to get to know us better-o / It’s not just for gays anymore!"); Sarah-Marie Maxwell spoke tenderly about how she was inspired by her grandmother and sang "Over the Rainbow" (Wizard of Oz), a song that she regretted not singing to her late gran; and Janie Dee described the moment she first heard the clarinet glissando that opens Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, knowing from that moment on that she wanted to a performer, illustrated musically with "Shall We Dance" from the composer’s American in Paris.
The final threesome saw Alyn Hawke continue the dance theme with a Gene Kelly medley, celebrating his life-long love of dancers such as Kelly and Astaire; Dawn Hope spoke warmly of her mother, who inspired a tear-jerking rendition of Billie Holiday’s "God Bless the Child"; and Geraldine Fitzgerald proved herself to be the consummate storyteller and comedienne by sharing an amusing tale about a recent visit to an old flame before bringing the spiegeltent down with the best-ever version of Sondheim’s "I Never Do Anything Twice" (written for the movie The Seven Percent Solution) that I’ve heard – absolute perfection.
To end the show, Bednaczyk returned to "All Things Bright and Beautiful", this time sung by Dee, who was then joined by the rest of the company.
It hardly appears directed but this is to the credit of Josh Seymour, who keeps the cabaret feeling informal and relaxed. Other than the blinding stage lighting, which appears to have permanently singed my retinas and is making this review difficult to type, it’s a lovely way to end the day, in the company of friends and some lovely banter and songs. Two more performances beckon, so I’d urge you not to miss out – especially if you were a fan of Follies. I’d pop back in again, if my diary wasn’t already filled. As Alyn Hawke sings, "I’m in Heaven…"
Tickets start at £19 and are available at Underbelly.
This review was originally written for Musical Theatre Review.