Brilliant Bennett is breathtaking

Searching for an elusive pot of gold: Tracie Bennett as the sad, funny, tragic star, Judy Garland

End of the Rainbow

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

TRACIE  Bennett is just magnificent. She is Judy Garland. She captures everything from the voice, honed, sanded and coloured by years of cigarettes and alcohol, to the strange, jerky, gestures and mannerisms that Garland produced on stage.

It is a portrayal which reminds you why you do this job. Every so often a production comes along  which raises the hairs on the back of your neck, which shows just what the theatre can create and in End of the Rainbow affords the privilege of seeing an actress with a performance she will surely never better even if she has a dozen lifetimes.

But this is no tribute show, no jukebox biog-musical Judy Garland story with half a page of Wikipedia-inspired script and two dozen karaoke numbers. This is a hard, stark, at times painful, drama which is little more than a snapshot of a few days in the troubled star's life of 47 years.

Peter Quilter's play chronicles Garland's appearance at London's Talk of the Town from the end of December 1968 to the start of February 1969 when her descent into the darkness was almost complete. We had had the numerous attempted suicides, the failed marriages, the failed treatments for drug and alcohol addiction - she was already on borrowed time with advanced cirrhosis of the liver when she arrived in London for the last time.

The play opens as she arrives at her hotel suite with new husband to be – her fifth – Mickey Deans, a former night club pianist who had once supplied her with drugs and was now her manager attempting to keep her away from the booze and pills.

Uppers, downers, mood changers - anything in a bottle - had been both a prop and a problem since her days as a child star.  MGM had fed her and the likes of Mickey Rooney, a cocktail of amphetamines to keep them all going 15 hours a day.

The five week run in London was of critical importance. Garland was broke with huge debts, her career, like her life, was in free fall, and she needed a trouble-free comeback to show promoters and bookers, more concerned with cash than celebrity, that she was still a star you could rely on.

Making up the strangest of love triangles is Anthony, the droll, loyal, loving and very much gay, pianist who had last worked with her on an ill fated, disastrous tour of Australia five years earlier.

Hilton McRae gives us a quiet, urbane Anthony who does little to hide his dislike of the controlling and manipulative Mickey, played with suitable, humourless drive by Norman Bowman. Anthony sees him as no better than the previous four husbands taking advantage of the lost and vulnerable star.

Anthony's sad expression of love for her near the end is quite moving, a gay man wooing a gay icon to come and do nothing but watch the waves crash on the shore in Brighton. An offer of drug free escape.

Bowman's Mickey keeps us guessing. Whether the former club pianist really does love the aging and fast-fading star, or sees her as the ultimate meal-ticket – if only he can get her on stage enough times – is never quite made clear. It is hard to like Mickey but difficult to put a finger on why you don't.

Tracie Bennett won Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes as Judy Garland and it is easy to see why

But we do see how he attempts to cold turkey Garland with complete denial of the drink and drugs she craves and then, to the disapproval of Anthony,  we see his plan change to offering pills and booze as bribes just to get her on stage on time in any state.

Bennett shows us a Garland who is funny, at times foul-mouthed, with acerbic wit and who can laugh at herself, such as when she doses up on stolen pills – she would pop anything – not knowing they were meant for a cocker spaniel.

This left Garland scrabbling around on all fours, laughing and barking,  cocking her leg and rolling on her back for her tummy to be tickled.

She also shows us the Garland who was insecure, vulnerable and desperately sad. She worried all her life about her physical appearance after MGM told her she was unattractive with Louis B Mayer the studio boss calling her “my little hunchback”. Nice one Louis! MGM gave her removable caps for her teeth and pads to change the shape of her nose. Even in the Wizard of Oz she had her breasts taped, wore a special corset to smooth out feminine curves and was give a dress to hide what little figure remained.

She left the studio system a drug addict with her confidence, childhood and even femininity taken from her. She veered from little girl to woman, soft feminine to hard butch for the rest of her life.

That vulnerability comes though in her heartfelt line in one of the more lucid moments when she realises what she once was and what she had become. "It's a terrible thing to know what you're capable of and never get there”.

The play is really a three hander although Robert Maskell does a sterling job as radio interviewer, the porter who carries the drunken Garland back to her room and unceremoniously dumps her on the couch and the less than enamored Assistant Stage Manager at the Talk of the Town trying to get Garland back on stage after an unscheduled Ritalin break.

The Talk of the Town concerts had their moments of triumph to prove Garland was still a star

William Dudley's design is worth a mention. The play opens with a sumptuous hotel suite complete with grand piano for rehearsals.

Just the opening scene you might think but that is the complete set. In the snatches of Talk of the Town performances the back wall heads off into the flies to reveal a six piece band, under MD Jon Ranger on piano, who manage to sound like a full blown orchestra adding the icing to Bennett's singing.

Clever lighting  from Simon Corder turns Claridges, the Savoy or wherever into a theatre at the flick of a switch and Gareth Owen's sound keeps a nice balance between band and singer.

People are there to hear Garland not Chris Egan's excellent arrangements which add to the story rather than distract in director Terry Johnson's production.

As a biography it does fall short. There is little explanation or speculation of how Garland had reached either her past heights or current depths.

Mickey may be on stage a lot but we never really find out, much less care one way or the other, about him. But perhaps that is the point. He never was the star and was never more than a footnote.

It may only be a short episode of her life but this is a play about Garland and just those few days. Even if you had never heard of Judy Garland, and to many younger theatre goers she will be little more than a name, End of the Rainbow could probably stand on its own as a piece of theatre - particularly with Bennett as the undoubted star.

In the few moments when she is off stage it is almost as if the lights have been switched off.

Garland was a true star and Bennett has joined her. The instant, universal standing ovation said it all. She is just unforgettable with a performance that will be talked about for years to come. To 22-10-11.

Roger Clarke

 

Judy Garland's last appearances were concerts in Copenhagen and Stockholm in March, 1969, the same month she married Deans at Chelsea Registry Office in London. and in June, just weeks after her Talk of the Town appearances, she was found dead in the bathroom of their rented house in Cadogan Lane, Chelsea, from an overdose of the barbiturate Seconal. She died 12 days after her 47th birthday.

The pills had been taken over a several hours and the coroner ruled out suicide, describing it as “an incautious self-overdosage”. Her death certificate stated her death was accidental.

Meanwhile, a second opinion . . .

****

 IF you are a fan of the classic movie The Wizard of Oz, don't expect to sit back at this show and enjoy a string of hits by the star of that film, the one and only Judy Garland.

 Personally I found it a rather harrowing experience watching how such a talented woman was wrecked by a killer cocktail of drugs and booze and failing in her 1968 comeback appearances at exhausting concerts in London's Talk of the Town.

Should a Mrs Worthington attend any of the performances at the Hippodrome, she will certainly not want to put her daughter on the stage. It can be a cruel and heart-breaking profession. Fame at a price.

 Having said that, Tracie Bennett gives a truly magnificent performance as the much-loved mega star on the road to ruin, popping pills and swigging alcohol which enabled her to face, reluctantly, yet another appearance on stage.

 Judy died, aged just 47, after an amazing career, five husbands, and having entertained millions with wonderful songs which will probably live for ever.

Peter Quilter's no-holds-barred play shows what a tormented woman the star became, lashing out with four-letter words, at times unable to apply her own make-up, and even pretending to be a dog, on all fours and cocking her leg after a drugs mix.

Hilton McRae is impressive as Judy's gay pianist, Anthony, who tried so hard to help her, and Norman Bowman plays her final husband, Mickey.

 It's a tragic tale, brilliantly performed, and the instant standing ovation at the end is no more than Tracie Bennett deserves. Her acting and singing is superb, and I would love to see her in a tribute show to Judy to see just how good her singing voice is. To 22.10.11

 Paul Marston

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