Northampton's Royal & Derngate are having a good year for transfers to London - after a pair
of "lost classics"
found their way to the National last spring, this UK premiere of Peter Quilter's 2005 play about Judy Garland arrives at Trafalgar 1 with its Northampton cast intact. I'm only a friend of Dorothy in the metaphorical sense (I mean, I'm not her enemy
or anything; I'm just not as likely to jump at the chance to see a Judy Garland show as some members of the gaiety might be.) This does, however feature Stephen Hagan, who remains a big favourite Round These Parts despite him wearing more clothes with every show. He remains fully dressed here, honestly it'll be a burqa next.
As the title, End of the Rainbow
suggests, we're looking at Garland near the end, with the action taking place a few months before her death, with her history of drug abuse (begun by the studios when she was in her teens, who got her hooked on uppers to get her through 16-hour working days and downers to let her sleep after them) hanging over everything that happens. Arriving at a hotel suite at the start of a five-week concert residency in London, Judy initially makes an optimistic attempt, encouraged by the much younger Mickey Deans (who would become her fifth and final husband,) to go cold turkey but inevitably the pressure of performing every night starts to get to her and the tantrums and demands begin. This isn't really a show that'll make you come out of it thinking you understand Garland better, more one that's designed to provide an actress with a role for which the words "tour de force" can be used. It's found the right person for this in Tracie Bennett, whose central performance doesn't miss a beat from comedy to tragedy to belting out the famous tunes. Quilter intersperses the hotel scenes with elements of the nightly performances, giving Bennett a chance to showcase her singing as well as her acting. It also serves to chronicle her deterioration - her personal chaos isn't reflected in her highly professional performances but by the second act she's crashing and burning on stage, disappointing her fans.
Diva behaviour affords a lot of opportunities for comedy and Bennett gets to deliver some great one-liners (when they're rehearsing a song for her concert: "I can skip this line, they'll be applauding") mainly to her gay pianist and sparring partner Anthony (Hilton McRae) who gets a fair share of bitchy putdowns of his own. A vague attempt to have Anthony as a representative of the whole of Garland's gay fanbase didn't really work for me though. Hagan has the less showy role as Mickey, although Quilter has resisted portraying him as simply a gold-digger. There's still a suggestion he might be just that but he also comes across as incredibly patient and determined to genuinely help Judy at first, before getting caught up in the same spiral as everyone before him has, of keeping Judy up or down chemically as she demands.
Inevitably this is going to attract a certain audience, although the age range of the gays present was wider than you might expect - a cute, early-20s-at-most couple in front of me seemed totally hooked (although their blank looks at each other at a joke about Bela Lugosi suggests their education in Classic Hollywood still needs some work.) Maybe the gay fanbase will help the show run its full course despite the lack of "names" in the cast; hopefully it will as although it's not ground-breaking it's an entertaining show that goes a lot quicker than its 2-and-a-half hour running time.End of the Rainbow
by Peter Quilter is booking until the 5th of March at Trafalgar Studio 1.