January 1969. Judy Garland is playing her last concerts at the Talk of the Town in London and has six months to live. She doesn’t know that – but we do; and that’s just one of the aspects to this play that tugs at your emotions so hard that your heartstrings twang.
I came to this play with no preconceived notions other than that it had received rave reviews. I knew very little about Judy Garland. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her sing (apart from the ubiquitous “Over the Rainbow”). I’ve only seen Wizard of Oz once and that was a couple of years ago. My mother used to like to sing “Meet Me in St Louis, Louis” but she didn’t have a Hollywood voice. However I would now be quite intrigued to hear her back-catalogue. (Judy Garland’s that is, not my mother’s.) I have no idea if Tracie Bennett does a good impersonation of Judy Garland – but I do know that she looks like she would be Liza Minelli’s mother, and she performs the old songs emotionally, sizzlingly, or wastedly, depending on the context in the play.
It’s written by Peter Quilter who wrote the marvellous “Glorious!” which we saw a few years ago with Maureen Lipman as the charming but tuneless Florence Foster Jenkins. There are many similarities between the two plays – the central character is female, charismatic and believes in her music; her entourage includes a gay friend and a suitor. They’re both very funny; they both create sadness.
But End of the Rainbow is a very special production. Tracie Bennett – spiky as Velma in Hairspray – is simply astonishing. Her performance means it is very difficult to take your eyes off her. From her opening distress at the smallness of the hotel suite (which to my eyes appears to be a totally magnificent suite), through her hopeful rehearsals of the concerts, to their subsequent failure, you can’t fail to be mesmerised by her reactions to the world about her, one that you feel is closing in. No wonder she thinks the suite is small. And when she takes to the stage at the Talk of the Town, the back wall of the suite flies up and reveals a live band recreating the concert sounds. The merging of the two scenes makes the whole thing feel like a fantasy. But just maybe, briefly, the world opening up like this gives Judy just a little bit more breathing space and the ability to come alive. The physical expansion of the set reflects the prospect of an emotional expansion within her, albeit temporarily.
I should add that it’s by no means a one-woman show and that the supporting cast were all excellent, especially Hilton McRae as her pianist. Two particularly memorable scenes with him were when Judy allowed him to do her make-up, and the final scene with him, when he was begging her not to marry Micky Deans but instead to live with him: safe, relaxed, quiet, unthreatening. Very moving.
One thing did go wrong – Judy throws a fruit bowl off stage in anger at her fiancé which apparently smashes against something and causes some damage. Well the performance we saw revealed the fruit bowl to be made of rubber as an inaccurate throw meant it didn’t quite get off stage and it bounced a bit, so that the sound effect of smashing china (which wounded pretty limp anyway) was embarrassing. Surprising that in otherwise such a technically stunning production they didn’t nail this piece of business better.
Still, this is to nit-pick. I sincerely hope this splendid production does not end its life here – it thoroughly deserves a West End transfer.