Through The Mill **** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: July 9, 2016 in Theatre

ThreeJudysSome bio-dramas set out to explain an enigma, but writer/director Ray Rackham has the opposite problem. So much of Judy Garland’s life is an open book that Rackham needs to fight a constant battle against over-familiarity to tell her story again, but the methods that he uses are remarkably successful in producing a show that flags only occasionally and dazzles frequently.

At first glance, this “musical-play” looks as if it could be just an attempt to string together a dozen of the star’s best known songs. The songs are here, but, in the event, the show is much more than that. Rackham takes three snapshots of Garland’s life: the girl in her early teens (played by Lucy Penrose) in the late 1930s heading towards …Oz; the superstar in 1951 (Belinda Wollaston), headlining at the Palace Theatre, New York even though Hollywood has stopped calling; and the fading icon in 1963 (Helen Sheals), recording her own television series for CBS, desperately trying to pay off her mounting debts.

The last section is given prominence, but it tends to go in circles and, if trimming to the script is needed, it is here. Otherwise, the technique of jumping from one era to another and allowing scenes to overlap works beautifully in giving the production fluidity and vitality. The dialogue is witty and revealing and the musical numbers are placed so astutely that, even if the show is not technically a musical, it often feels as if it is. It looks like a lot of work has gone into patching all this together with such precision.

The three Judys are remarkably consistent with each other, painting a picture of an insecure girl/woman who is in constant need of flattery and reassurance and who becomes increasingly obdurate as she ages. This is not the clichéd figure of an egotistical superstar ogre; Rackham and the three actors make her human, vulnerable and even likeable. Her fearsome mother (Amanda Bailey) will stop at nothing to secure her showbiz success, setting her off on a road that requires pills to go to sleep, pills to wake up, pills to lose weight, etc. Ultimately, pills would prove to be her nemesis. Her third husband, Sid Luft (Harry Anton) becomes a steadying influence, but she grows tired of his constant warnings and resorts to still more pills.

Members of Jordan Li’ Smith’s small band take acting parts as well as accompanying the songs, which are nailed utterly and completely by the three ladies. Penrose and Wollaston duetting on Zing Went the Strings of My Heart and Sheals belting out The Man That Got Away are notable showstoppers, but it is unfair to single any out. There are solos, duets, and, for the climax (guess which song), all three perform together. Rackham’s experience as a musical theatre director comes strongly into play and, with the help of his choreographer, Chris Whitaker and superb lighting design (Jack Weir), he stages the numbers with panache on a thrust stage.

This could so easily have resembled a sad eulogy for a performer who left us too soon, but, instead, it is a celebration of the life of a star that shone brightly through clouds of adversity and we get the bonus of three sensational Judys for the price of one. They are the real pots of gold at the end of this glistening rainbow.

Performance date: 8 July 2016

Photo: Darren Bell

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