Follies - London

After a sold-out run, this winner of the Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival returns.

Joanna Riding on Stepping into London's Follies and Her Strong Take on "Losing My Mind"

Joanna Riding on Stepping into London's Follies and Her Strong Take on
Joanna Riding in "Follies"
(Photo: Johan Persson)

Joanna Riding has won two Olivier Awards, starting with her matchless Julie Jordan in Nicholas Hytner’s landmark 1992 production of Carousel, and is now giving a career-defining performance as the lovesick Sally Durant Plummer in the National Theatre’s acclaimed revival of Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman musical Follies, in which she has replaced Imelda Staunton. Complete with a “Losing My Mind” worth losing one’s mind over, Riding’s star turn prompted no shortage of astute reflection when phoned for a chat.

How much did you know about Follies when you were offered this opportunity?
I didn’t know much about the show at all, if you can believe it. I knew there were great numbers within it. Luckily, I had seen it with Imelda one night when my family ended up going to see School of Rock. But I think coming at a show completely fresh is sometimes for the best and fortunately, rather than rest on their laurels, [the creative team] had an idea about how to refashion it.

What is your take on Sally as a character?
She’s lonely, for starters: Buddy’s work takes him away and also, he’s playing away, so it’s a deeply unhappy relationship. What’s more she has been following Ben and Phyllis from a distance, which she can because they’re a public couple, and she has decided that they’re not happy and that she knows the route to happiness for Ben. Of course, she’s still fearful that Ben may not want her, so Sally always exists on that edge.

Did Imelda acknowledge your coming aboard the production in any way?
She sent me the most beautiful first-night card. The words were so generous and warm, made doubly so because we had worked together before on Guys and Dolls; it was so kind of her because she didn’t need to do that.

What was it like reuniting in Follies with Janie Dee, who won an Olivier for Carousel as you also did 25 years ago? [Dee was Carrie to Riding’s Julie.]
I was very wet behind the ears when I did Carousel, which really did come at a very early point in my career. Janie, being that little bit older than me and with that little bit more experience, took me under her wing during that show and looked after me so thoroughly. It’s really thrilling as friends to be playing friends [in Follies]—albeit friends who are slightly estranged.

Did you have to get your voice into shape for this role?
I had to do a lot of work on my voice for the simple reason that you get to my age [51] and you’re only asked to belt—unless you’re an opera singer. And because I’m a mum to young kids, I tend to be very lazy between shows, so I’m all or nothing, and I certainly haven’t kept my voice up in Sally’s register.

Does Sally offer a particular vocal challenge?
Sondheim doesn’t pull a key out of nowhere, and I knew they wanted to go back to the original keys, so your job therefore is to find a reason for the decisions that have been made. When Sally arrives at the party all hyper, she’s almost channeling the girl she once was and trying to bring Ben back to that time: it’s about her remembering for both of them what they had, which has meant getting my head voice back. And then it descends into the depths of despair [in “Losing My Mind”], so the voice needs to come right down.

How did you arrive at your interpretation of “Losing My Mind,” which—spoiler ahead! —finds Sally knocking back booze and pills and more?
It was largely instinct about how I felt it should go. I imagined Sally as bipolar: for 30 years she’s been harboring these feelings for Ben and living a lie and is in a deep depression and then of course she gets to the other side of that, which is mania. As a result, I wanted a “Losing My Mind” in which she realizes that there’s nothing left; she has finally accepted the fact that it’s all over.

What was the reaction of your director, Dominic Cooke, to so bold a take on this song?
In fact, we were getting nearer and nearer to performance and I was getting frightened that we hadn’t looked at the scene very fully yet and I was going to be singing it with an orchestra at the sitzprobe [seated rehearsal with singers and orchestra] and have an audience the following week. So, I said to Dominic, “If you’ll bear with me and hear me out, I just want to show you what I’ve found,” and he went, “That’s great”—and I didn’t even have all the pieces of it in place yet.

How does this takeover compare to previous ones you have done—like on My Fair Lady, playing Eliza, for which you won your second Olivier?
This has been a very different experience and entirely delightful. When I took over in My Fair Lady, I came to a company that was very dispirited and a leading man that was very dispirited.

How did that manifest itself?
I was distraught, really: I kept thinking, how can I be the Eliza I should be if no one will rehearse with me, so I had slowly to find my feet. Then something wonderful happened, which was the cast change and Alex [Jennings, the new Higgins] coming through the fog like a knight in shining armor. He’s a very generous man as well as a very generous actor and from that moment on, my Eliza grew into what I always dreamed it could be.

Has your commitment to work changed now that you have a family?
That, yes, but also the crazy decision we took as a family to move well away from London, which was partly to be closer to home: my father is not well and hasn’t been for some time. We needed to go north and happened to land in Rugby where, because of speed restrictions on the line, a 50-minute journey has turned into an hour and a half, so if I don’t get the 10: 30PM train then I’m not home till 1AM—and then am up to do the school run in the morning with the kids [ages 12 and 9]. It’s true that I haven’t worked as much since I had kids.

Do you sense other Sondheim roles on the horizon?
Once again, how do you top Imelda? She keeps screwing up roles for me because I’ll see her in whichever part and think, “That’s that one gone, shit; it can’t be bettered.” [Laughs.] But I’d like to think there’s a Mrs. Lovett in me somewhere, and I’d love to have a go at the Witch in Into the Woods. But what I’d like to do first is revisit the Countess in A Little Night Music, which I did in a semi-staged reading with Janie [as Desiree] and Jamie Parker [as the Count]. We got remarkable reviews and hoped something would come of it but so far nothing has, but we’re still hopeful.