In Sally’s eyes, as played by Imelda Staunton in the 2017 National Theatre revival of James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies directed by Dominick Cooke, you can see madness, pain, a dream slipping through her fingers, curdling into nightmare. It’s Sally’s folly in the back part of the show, the ghosts of the past not so much stalking her, her pathetic and unfaithful husband Buddy, her former best friend Phyllis, and the object of her desire Ben, so much as creating a phantasmagoric vaudevillian performance space which forces them to confront their ills. This is “Loveland”, as the hoofers tell us, draped in idyllic, too perfect to be true baby blue lighting, silky curtains, and costumes that uncannily resurrect the past. It’s so much sadder than being deranged because reality is just at the edges.
It seems significant that Sally’s number, quiet and rumbling compared to the vivacious pastiches of everyone else’s, including their former selves, is called a “torch song”. Minimalist where the others’ performances are maximalist, she sits by a vanity, her nightgown, her skin, her hair milky and shimmering in a way it hasn’t since she was a showgirl. She’s starlight, but she’s dying. A flame that’s burned eternal, the blue at its base wavering in the wind but still alight. Imelda Staunton’s rendition of “Losing My Mind” simmers at first until she douses herself in kerosene, her continued, desperate and mad pining for Ben, even when he’s once again spurned her, the ultimate kind of self-immolation.