Trafalgar Studio 1, London SW1
Opened 22 November, 2010
If you know enough already about Judy Garland to take the decision to go and see End Of The Rainbow, it will tell you no more than you already knew, and make you feel no more than you had been expecting to feel.
Tracie Bennett gives a great performance as Garland, right from the moment her voice makes its first entrance several seconds before the rest of her. Portraying her during her five-week cabaret stint at London’s Talk Of The Town shortly before her death in 1969, Bennett is by turns exuberant, fiery, insecure, terrified, incoherent, shattered, needy... the list goes on, encompassing all the facets of the Garland legend: the talent, the dependencies, the wreck of a life. Bennett gets everything about the star, from the disintegrating tremolo-heavy voice to the haunted-panda eyes.
Stephen Hagan is her latter-day manager and soon-to-be fifth husband Mickey Deans, who begins by assiduously keeping all booze and pills away from Garland but ends by dosing her with them in order to get her through the shows. However, the real foil in the play is Anthony, the pianist she has engaged for the run. Hilton McRae never cheapens or traduces Garland’s gay following by overdoing the camp as Anthony; he is primly sardonic rather than a queen bitch, and when he proposes that she retire to his flat in Brighton it is a cardigan-and-slippers fantasy rather than a tantrums-and-tiaras one.
Writer Peter Quilter is well aware that Garland’s life was full of drama, even melodrama. But drama isn’t theatre. The finales of each half lay bare the real nature of the show. The back wall of the Savoy Hotel set is not flown out to reveal the band behind it, as for the club scenes; rather, it becomes semi-transparent as the lights dim and Bennett delivers, in Act One, “The Man That Got Away”, and in Act Two, inevitably, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”. This is not Garland at the Talk Of The Town, nor in her hotel room, but rather in that abstract space where stars shine on for ever. The evening is no longer a play; it is a tribute. And it’s a well assembled and excellently performed one. Only those who hope for anything more than the schmaltz of suffering will be disappointed.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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