I’d die happy if I could press Belinda Wollaston’s voice to brand new vinyl, lie back in an empty room, and play it loudly on a loop for the rest of my life.
In the sweaty Southwark Playhouse on a hot summer night, that heartbreaking, powerful, sound gave me goosebumps.
Ray Rackham’sThrough The Mill showcases three of the most astonishing female vocalists in theatre today. They were perfect enough in Fulham’s tiny London Theatre Workshop when we heard them last Christmas, now these voices feel they’ll blow the house’s roof off and stop the traffic outside.
Triple the size of the stage and audience and it still wouldn’t be big enough for what these women, with these performances, deserve.
Through The Mill dashes through three decades in the life of Judy Garland with directorial creativity, as Rackham intertwines the highs and lows plus her biggest show-tunes of the ‘30s, ‘50s and ‘60s.
Over a two-tier wooden set, a cast of multi-talented actors play both band and supporting parts, and, while they’re all exceptional, it’s hard to focus on anything or anyone else when you have female leads this utterly compelling.
Lucy Penrose captures the child who became an icon as a teenage Dorothy, Wollaston is the washed-up, neurotic and addicted 29-year-old on her umpteen comeback, and Helen Sheals plays the 40-something Garland teetering on the edge of her life’s final descent.
Just a few years from her untimely death, this Judy is portrayed as a feisty tornado on the outside, but a deeply sad and troubled woman inside, still ultimately at the mercy of men exploiting and controlling her.
Wollaston is just superb as Judy in her late 20s, beautiful but exhausted, beaten down, and desperately seeking reassurance, she brought tears to my eyes during Rockabye Your Baby and ingrained Get Happy into my head for the rest of the weekend.
At the same age as your Stage Review critic, she’s already lived a thousand years more: through countless pill bottles and a haze of whisky she’s lost her father, had two husbands, an Oscar nod, a suicide attempt, and given birth to Liza Minelli.
All three Judys balance victim with fighter, crushed little girl with global superstar. Through The Mill takes us through her years under the thumb of a pushy mother and opportunistic studio execs, but never lets us forget Judy’s spirit, determination, and the ego she’s built to try and fight off the vultures.
Helen Sheals’ Judy in the ‘60s is a gutsy and forceful presence, an experienced old broad with only a surface-level conviction she’s still a superstar.
Sheals snags the most stage-time, best outfits, and the sharpest one-liners, and while her solo songs – Life is Just A Bowl of Cherries and The Man That Got Away among them – are glorious, her era-spanning duets with the younger Judys are the show’s real highlight.
Over The Rainbow feels a little rushed at the end, but perhaps that was deliberate. After all, there was so much more to Garland’s life and career.
Our youngest Judy, Lucy Penrose, is so phenomenally talented I was astonished to find out that she only graduated from acting school last year.
Penrose bears the most striking physical resemblance to our star (while also reminding me a little of the young Natalie Wood) and her well-studied voice and mannerisms perfectly capture the child prodigy’s naivety, innocence, but gutsy determination to make it.
Harry Anton plays Garland’s third husband Sidney Luft more sympathetically and with less menace. It is a much more nuanced, witty and warmer performance than in this production’s earlier incarnation.
It’d be too easy to portray Luft as a slap-happy bastard. In a play about a life entirely dominated by awful men, he’s actually rather likeable.
Anton’s New York accent is more consistent in this production, the thick-rimmed glasses and deeper voice an effective tool for portraying the older Sid in scenes with Sheals’ 40-something Judy.
Oozing machismo, with his less-than-subtle echoes of Brando, Anton looks like he’s just walked off a Tennessee Williams revival. He is, without doubt, a guy to watch in the future.
It’s of economical benefit to the production, of course, to cast three actors as Garland but just one as Luft, but it also helps give a real sense of Luft as the one constant, whether manager or partner or both, in Judy’s life.
Garland sees in her third husband everything her largely-absent paedophile of a father wasn’t. She craves his attention yet deliberately pushes him away.
A physically powerful figure, ‘One Punch Luft’ spends two decades being cut down to size by Garlands waspish swipes and catty put-downs. He laughs it off but there’s hurt behind the eyes. There’s no doubt this man really loved her.
Wollaston and Anton also pull off one of the hottest sex scenes you’ll see on stage this decade, raising the sweaty London theatre’s temperature even higher with passion and obvious chemistry, as the older Judy looks back, crooning a ballad.
We’ll conclude by disagreeing with another Stage Reviewer’s comment about the last production that Through The Mill was just for established Judy fans. I wasn’t one before seeing it, but sure as hell am now.
This is a potentially enormous big-budget West End hit, beautifully staged and thankfully available to us in a reasonably priced, accessible, little theatre.
Follow the yellow brick road, or the A3 from Elephant and Castle, and catch this show immediately.
Through The Mill plays at the Southwark Playhouse until July 30.
Through The Mill
Through The Mill, Ray Rackham’s stylish musical-play about the life of Judy Garland, showcases three of the most astonishing female vocalists in theatre today.