The life of Judy Garland has been well documented. Is there anything left to learn about the tragic star’s disastrous relationships, monstrous mother and her life-long love affairs with both drink and drugs?
Ray Rackham’s musical, Through The Mill, which opened last night at Fulham’s London Theatre Workshop, gives us nothing new. Old ground may be retrod, however, but it’s skilfully done and with great reverence for its subject.
The audience doesn’t get one Judy, darling, we get three – at different stages of her life – and each is totally fabulous in their portrayal of the Hollywood star and damaged icon.
Rackham’s rather sanitised and sober portrayal of the star’s life does tend to gloss over her well-publicised addictions (her mother was feeding her pills to sleep, wake and lose weight, before she’d hit puberty).
Instead, with Helen Sheals’ mature turn as the “hurricane”, we get a wise-cracking, been-around-the-block, old school dame, who dispenses sardonic humour and worldly wisdom in a battle of wills with various TV producers.
The playwright has concentrated on three key moments in Garlands’ life – the 1930s, when an innocent, untapped talent, called Frances Gumm, was thrust in into the spotlight by her pushy mother; the ’50s where we see a terrified, chain-smoking, neurotic perform at New York’s Palace Theatre; and the early 1960s, just a few years before her death from a drugs overdose, when she staged an ill-fated comeback on TV.
At times director Max Reynolds cleverly shows all three eras simultaneously with one, two or all three Judys singing together, with their lives, at that point in time, wrapped around the snatches of performance.
Sheals, as CBS Judy, delivers the most complex and poignant portrayal of a woman aware that her shelf-life is up but determined to have one last gutsy attempt at reminding the world that she’s the biggest star it has ever seen.
Overwhelmed by crushing debts she has no option but to agree to an entertainment series for TV – the experience proves bruising as she finds herself clashing with smart young studio executives more interesting in ratings than performance.
One minute they’re massaging Judy’s fragile ego and, the next, destroying her confidence like many before them.
Judy Penrose’s young Judy is spellbinding, a Dorothy-in-the-making whose eyes glow with innocence and vulnerability.
Controlled by her domineering mother, Ethel, the 12-year-old is paraded in front of studio bosses like a piece of prize horseflesh.
And sandwiched in-between is Belinda Wollaston’s Palace Judy, who paces the floor, smoking incessantly and riddled with self-doubt over whether she can face going on stage in front of a celebrity audience.
Judy’s life was dominated by a parade of men who used (and abused) her but one remained constant through her middle and later years, Sid Luft.
If only the real Luft had looked like the brooding Harry Anton then Judy probably wouldn’t have ever considered divorcing him.
Here is an actor that oozes menace and charm with equal measure. His striking looks mark him down as a shoo-in for one of those testosterone-fuelled roles in a Tennessee Williams (he’s already played Stanley Kowalski) and he was exceptional as a hot-headed Tybalt in a recent production of Romeo & Juliet.
His American accent wavers a bit as Luft but he gives an intense and watchable turn as Judy’s rock (if only she’d seen it) who seems to have been one of the few men who genuinely loved the star.
The singing performances of all three women are nothing short of sensational. Zing Went The Strings of My Heart, The Trolley Song, You Made Me Love You, and, of course, Over The Rainbow, give goosebumps.
Ultimately this is a show for fans. The story is imaginatively told and presented but unoriginal in content.
Through the Mill runs at the London Theatre Workshop until December 19.
Through The Mill
Fabulous performances by a trio of Judy Garlands in Ray Rackham’s musical, Through The Mill, but there’s nothing new to add to the tragic legend’s frequently told story.