Back in 1976, when Rock Follies first appeared on the nation’s screens, TV was very different to today. There was no satellite or streaming, not even recorders, so whereas nowadays 3 million viewers is considered a success, back then Rock Follies had 15 million people watching live.
Consequently, many older people will remember it well, however anyone under, say, 60, may be puzzled as to what the fuss is about. So first, a bit of background. It’s hard to imagine now but in the 1970s, women were rare in the British pop charts and female groups were non-existent. The pop industry was dominated by men both on and off stage. Rock Follies imagined the fate of a female singing group.
And that fate at that time was always likely to be one of chauvinism and exploitation. Equal pay for women had only come into law a few months before the series began. The assumption was still that women in the music industry would be secretaries or groupies. It was a very different world, although the Me-Too movement has shown that less has changed than we might hope.
The title Rock we understand, but why Follies? I’m not sure. Perhaps the creators wanted to reassure an older audience who might be wary of a TV drama about rock music that it would be in the tradition of the spectacular song and dance ‘Follies’ from the early part of the 20th century. Or maybe it was meant to be an ironic suggestion that the idea of a female rock group was a foolish fantasy.
In fact, there’s a lot of irony involved in Rock Follies. Given the way the three singers are treated in the drama, it’s ironic that the people who actually came up with the original idea were also three women but it was used without payment or credit by the television company. Only after a court case are Diane Langton, Gaye Brown and Annabel Leventon getting the recognition they deserve, including a credit in the programme for this new musical version at the Minerva Theatre.
And, although it is a story of three feminist women who challenge the male world by writing and singing their own songs, the original screenplay and lyrics were written by a man, Howard Schuman. That’s not a criticism. Mr Schuman created great characters and a compelling story. The songs were also composed by a man, the talented Andy Mackay from Roxy Music.
In the current production, the backing musicians are all men. A good band, by the way, led by Toby Higgins.
So when the women call themselves The Little Ladies and then have to explain ‘it’s ironic’, the question is always there: how ironic is it when they are patronised, abused and exploited by men from the music industry, and manipulated into being something they don’t want to be? The women also encounter chauvinist journalists, drugs and messy personal relationships. They do try to stand their ground and some of the best moments are when the men are put in their place. Eventually, they are driven apart by internal rivalry and differences. (By the way, a lot of young male pop artists were also abused and exploited.)
It’s been the job of Chloë Moss to take all the riches of ten hours of TV drama and reduce them to a two-and-a-half hour musical, while integrating nearly all of two albums worth of songs. On the whole, she does a good job, retaining the essential elements, and making a few changes for the sake of a much shorter story arc. Where I think she could have done better is to have slowed the pace a little. We rush through scene after scene. This is partly because there are over 30 songs to fit in. Good as they are, and often accompanied by some delightful choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, they don’t tend to advance the story or reveal character.
Consequently, there is even less time to get to know the characters and be involved in their experiences. The dialogue is often a brief exchange that can sound stilted. Having said that, the musical could have done with the women performing more than one song in a row, maybe at the end. That way, they could have got the audience clapping along and appreciating the women united in ‘girl power’.
The main characters are well drawn. Dee is a strong feminist and the driving force of the group. Played by Angela Marie Hurst, she has, and is meant to have, the best voice- a stirring top note-hitting soul sound. Anna, played by Carly Bawden is the intellectual. She’s thoughtful but also unable to cope with pressure. Zizi Strallen is the funny, privileged Q, who avoids confrontation, and has, as someone says, splinters in her bottom from sitting on the fence.
The two people who try to guide them with some degree of care are Harry, played as kindly but weak, by Samuel Barnett and Kitty, a plain speaking, forceful American, played by Tamsin Carroll, who probably gets the most laughs. Philippa Stefani, a late addition to the group, is a plain-speaking Geordie called Roxy who adds another powerful voice.
The others are pretty much one dimensional but, in the time available, it would unfair to expect them to be anything more. The cast including Fred Haig, Stephenson Ardern-Sodje and Sebastian Torkia bring them to life.
Designer Vicki Mortimer makes clever and appropriate use of flight cases (those black boxes with metal edges that are on wheels and contain sound equipment) to represent all the furniture as needed- dressing tables, chairs, even a bed. They roll easily on and off and around the otherwise empty stage floor with the minimum of fuss but the maximum of effect.
In such an open space, lighting plays a vital part. Paule Constable‘s design is excellent at conveying the varying atmospheres of a pub, an office, a recording studio, a dressing room, a TV chat show, and of course a concert stage.
For me, Rock Follies didn’t quite work in the Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva Theatre. It’s an intimate theatre with the audience on three sides. There’s no reason why a musical shouldn’t work there. I recall a brilliant production of The Pajama Game. But it does require the actors to play to all three sides.
Unfortunately, the back of the stage is filled with a structure that accommodates the live band at the top and a small stage for the occasional song sung at a concert. I don’t doubt this was brought about by necessity but it has the effect of forcing the cast too far forward into the open space. Director Dominic Cooke moves the cast around in a smooth flowing performance but they inevitably pitch too much of the show to the centre with their backs, or at best their sides, often being all that can be seen from the extreme edges of the seating. If you do decide to see this show, I strongly recommend that you sit in that centre block.
Nevertheless, Rock Follies is an entertaining musical blessed with some very good performances.
Rock Follies runs at the Minerva until 26 August 2023