LONDON — Imelda Staunton plays a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in “Follies,” Stephen Sondheim’s dizzying musical about a traumatic reunion of former Broadway showgirls.

Staunton goes from perky to shattered as Sally Durant Plummer, a former dancer who meets up with a former friend and an old flame in Sondheim’s show about the pull of nostalgia and the perils of aging. The smash-hit National Theatre production is being broadcast live to international movie theaters Thursday, with repeat screenings over the coming weeks.

So it’s strange to hear that Staunton, fresh off an acclaimed performance in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” initially worried the musical might be a bit unchallenging.

“I thought, ‘Is it too lightweight?'” Staunton said. She soon changed her mind, realizing — this is a Sondheim musical, after all — that it’s “a play full of pain and regret.”

Staunton’s Sally lives with her salesman husband Buddy in Phoenix but still holds a candle for lost love Ben, a high-flying diplomat and financier married to Sally’s former dancing pal Phyllis. The four characters collide at a reunion before the old theater that holds their youthful memories is demolished.

Her show-stopping number is “Losing My Mind,” a song Staunton says Sondheim encouraged her to take literally.

“He said to me, the song is ‘she is losing her mind,'” she said. “It’s not just a song — she is.”

Staunton — a Sondheim veteran who has won Olivier Awards for performances in “Into the Woods,” ”Sweeney Todd” and “Gypsy” — says the 87-year-old American composer’s genius lies in the way “he really investigates the human psyche” in song.

“This stuff challenges you,” she said. “You can’t believe these people are having a nervous breakdown and you’re listening to ‘Broadway Baby'” — one of the show’s many blockbuster numbers.

“I think he’s the Shakespeare of musical theater,” Staunton said. “I think the word genius is bandied about way too often, but I think it absolutely does refer to him.”

First staged in 1971, “Follies” won seven Tony Awards but developed a reputation as a difficult work to stage, with its patchwork structure, time period shifts and elaborate fantasy sequences.

This production, directed by Dominic Cooke, has been praised for its stunning set and costumes and the seamless action that unfolds without an intermission.

Staunton, 61, has had an exceptionally varied career, with four decades of stage roles alongside some plum screen performances. She was Academy Award nominated for a sympathetic abortionist in Mike Leigh’s “Vera Drake” and is known to millions as the tyrannical, pink-clad teacher Dolores Umbridge in the “Harry Potter” films.

“I’m a character actress,” she said modestly.

“This job is a long career,” she explained. “It’s not like a footballer or a dancer. You can keep going and keep going. So building up solid groundwork I think is really important. (And) reconnecting with the theater — I think in this country a lot of actors find that vital.”

She admits, though, that when “Follies” ends its run on Jan. 3 she will be ready for a change.

“I love the theater, but I get a real thrill doing filming,” she said. “And I’ve done enough theatre now that I think people are sick of the sight of me. So I shall very quietly just bugger off for a bit and concentrate, hopefully, on a bit of film and telly for a while.”


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JILL LAWLESS
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