Simon Jenner in West Sussex
1 August 2023
Some have waited 46 years. Dominic Cooke brings back Howard Schuman and Andy Mackay’s 1976-77 television series Rock Follies to Chichester’s Minerva but as a musical with a book by Chloë Moss. It’s a big strut for a small space; perhaps that’s the point.
Zizi Strallen, Angela Marie Hurst and Carly Bawden.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
For many teens, Rock Follies was exciting, even dangerous television. It pushed what was possible, permissible, pleasurable, anti-patriarchal into another sphere. Only the snarling-up of rights prevented it being repeated like other 1970s shows, and its huge cultural imprint – inspiring many at the time – has gone largely undocumented.
Till now, with a resurgence of interest around this production making that alone a cause for celebration that the feminist struggle of “it’s ironic” The Little Ladies – Anna, (the late Charlotte Cornwell) Dee (Julie Covington) and Q (Rula Lenska) – are spot-lit again for new generations.
Their places are taken by Anna’s Carly Bawden, Dee’s Angela Marie Hurst, and Q’s Zizi Strallen respectively. It should be admitted straight away their performances, and those of certain others, are so good it leaves some of the original material standing.
Philippa Stefani, Carly Bawden, Angela Marie Hurst and Zizi Strallen.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
Naturally this is configured in a musical format but it could have been a hybrid. Though we’re treated to what seems like all the original songs over two series (12 hour-length episodes), there’s inevitably far less of the gritty content that made this series what it was, pushed out into an already full-length two hours 45. Fewer songs, more Follies would have been possible without turning Rock Follies into a more conventional musical. Its essence remains though, the storytelling is clear, the end satisfyingly dovetailed.
The three leads rehearsing a mediocre show Broadway Annie, fall foul of incompetent Director (Fred Haig’s initial tantrum of a role) and the mis-timing lead Annie (Tamsin Carroll, also soon to return); as articulate, Cambridge-educated-from-Dorking Anna answers back, is fired, and joined in a walk-out by commune-dwelling, working-class Dee and disinherited aristocrat and porn-star Q. It’s Dee with the voice who proposes they start a band by women directed by women.
This hardly impresses Dee’s commune boyfriend “but it’s not exclusive” Spike (Stephenson Ardern-Sodje who grows affectingly throughout). But then with hippy Gloria (Carroll again, priceless in her cringy blood-trickling haiku, “still in early stages”) and drippy leader Bernard (Sebastien Torkia’s first appearance, wait for the next) all Dee can do is state her case baldly. After Spike’s consummately dirge-like “We Shall Overcome” and “Gloria”, Dee tellingly gives no samples.
Tamsin Carroll in foreground.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
Moss delineates backstories, so Torkia, also sponging, lazy boyfriend Carl, will clearly leave Q (and try to come back) depending on her income. And Haig’s liberal academic Jack nevertheless keeps trying to push Anna into secretarial work (no hint she might be a lecturer too) and babies. It’s only Spike, later hilariously caught out with Gloria as Dee unwittingly joins them in bed after a tour, who goes a journey to be at least a bit worthy of her.
It’s clear Anna has the song writing chops, and Dee, emerging as the voice – Hurst is quite exceptional vocally, though both Bawden and Strallen are superb too.
Strallen’s wonderfully nonchalant performance as actor is a highlight, the most deeply characterized by Moss, to avoid Q’s being a caricature: particularly her unexpected moves, from comfortably slinky sex-flicks maker, through being the peacemaker urging compromise, to confronting Carl, befriending manager Harry (Samuel Barnett), to her unexpected decision finding a voice she didn’t know she had.
Bawden is given far more when crises and side-lining push her into fraught corners, a chance to make her darkness visible. With Jack gone, her points of relating and conflict are limited to the band, and their ultimate boss Kitty (Carroll again). Bawden’s part is still slightly underwritten, though she brings hollowed-out, creative-but-frangible Anna to a bleak climax. But wait.
Sebastien Torkia as Stevie.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
Hurst’s part does better the original, also underwritten: making her a Black singer with the great voice seems a natural fit too, one of the few opportunities missed by the original. Hurst can blaze not just vocally, as her Dee’s able to assert herself, but, like Bawden though more frequently, is given chances to conflict with Carroll’s Kitty and imposed new band member Roxy (Philippa Stefani, a memorably fine singer), a study in overreach, weaponizing sex and backbiting.
Having acquired Barnett’s gently compelling Harry (“My type … more Robert Redford”) who bonds with equally peace-making Q, the band confront gigs and sleazy promoters like Peter Houston where Kate Waters’s satisfyingly timely fight direction comes in.
Most of all there’s Torkia’s magnificent Tim Curry-style role of Stevie Streeter, flecked with Marc Bolan in zebra, Jethro Tull’s gawkiness and hat, and teen-arrested ego, ’76 vintage. This is Torkia’s great moment: a man literally capable of pulling the plug on those more talented. His flailing act and failing ego-burst is a gleeful climax to Act One.
It does him no good, Kitty dropping him and signing the trio, whom she understands pragmatically, with Haig’s final, main role of Machiavel partner David, who brings in Roxy. Beyond the trio, Carroll gives Act Two’s most memorable performance, with Ardern-Sodje’s penitent Spike and Stefani’s northern soul Roxy flipped into naked ambition.
After vertiginous heights including Top of the Pops and international tours, inevitable strains, sidelinings, drug-taking, walkings, firings almost mimic long-forgotten Broadway Annie. But there’s a path for each, and a heart-warming reunion.
Songs are often very fine, if a bit samey collectively, losing some edge. Certainly no less memorable than most lauded new musicals out there at the moment. There’s a few semi-precious jewels: ‘Rollercoaster’ in Act Two memorable if derivative. From Act One, best are ‘Good Behaviour’ the feminist anthem, the upbeat ‘Sugar Mountain’ and the two with the superbly obnoxious Streeter – ‘Rock Follies’ and the upstaging ‘Hot Neon’ – watch what happens to the neon.
Some moments date. The trio defy their new manager and perform ‘Jubilee’ a wannabe anti-Royalist statement instantly blown out by the Sex Pistols. Though there’s attitude and costume enough (and offstage complaints) it’s outflanked by history: though still subversive and funny.
The number they should have performed, ‘Struttin’ Ground’ is more emollient but still energized. Best as ensemble is ‘The Hype’ where Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s choreography comes more into its own. But apart from ‘Rollercoaster’ and Dee-Roxy’s thrillingly adversarial duet ‘Biba Nova’, the best of Act Two are quieter mournful numbers like “Glen Miller is Missing” in ATS uniform (how this period piece came in, in 1977, is lost to memory), and Anna’s mournful “The B Side” where she fears the worst. Carroll though nails her solo ‘The Things You have To Do’, an establishing song that moves her alongside the trio.
Nigel Lilley has artfully brightened musical lines; the two bands more than rise to them. It’s a punchy if queasy two-tiered sound design that Ian Dickinson creates too – both echoing stadia on the raised platform stage and more intimate grungy literally low-down one on the stage proper.
There’s strong work too by Bella Brown (making an assured debut) ,Collette Guitart as Dance Captain, Houston in various sleazy roles including sexist interviewer overwhelmed by Roxy and as Harry’s lover; Matthew Malthouse on bass guitar, Antoine Murray-Straughan playing roles from gyrating hippy to dancer, and Harriet Watson as a particularly irritated BBC Stage Manager.
Kinnetia Isidore’s numerous costumes brighten a determinedly dingy stage and do much of the storytelling. Their presence almost becomes the design, bright spots when Vicki Mortimer, a consummate designer, here understates with a simple sleazy black space, stage-peripheral woofers, upright piano, raised platform with cheap glitter and the Little Ladies with lighting by Paule Constable who also neatly distinguishes the three with spot-lit colour, and altogether lends a more distinct period identity. Ingrouille seems to choreograph for a slightly larger space, with awkward use of the Minerva. We could have more happily squeezed in a bit more story.
Toby Higgins directs Liam Godwin, Joe Britton, Ashley Williams and Mat Hector from the keyboards; Malthouse, Godwin and Ardern-Sodje also perform onstage as the Blurred Faces band.
If the patriarchal pop-industry has moved on at all, it’s partly down to what Rock Follies did to those who came after. The twist here is that the ultimate mover is a woman, an insider who knows male-centred industry rules. But it’s David who introduces disrupter Roxy – again using a woman to undermine women. Far more than the Spice Girls’ girl power, Rock Follies prophesies shows this year like Southwark’s Sugar Coat, a girl-band narrative which also explores sexuality, reflecting a painfully slow shift.
It was a special occasion. Schuman, Mackay and Lenska (dancing where she stood at the end) were there to receive applause and to bless the production. As Mackay said earlier: “Over to 2023 now!”
This should transfer, no question. Is it too late to pack in more Schuman and Mackay storyline and trim the reprises a bit? Those moments when an oddball American producer blasts through the television set with “Straight sex are a load of wankers” are more treasurable than all the ‘f’s we authentically got.