As American female impersonator Jim Bailey gave a scarily convincing performance as Judy Garland at the London Palladium a lone, plaintive voice from a gentleman of a certain age, clearly overcome with emotion, suddenly wailed from the back of the theatre, “Why Judy….WHY?”
If that chap is still around today he had better give a very wide berth to End of the Rainbow at the Trafalgar Studios where Tracie Bennett is now donating her Judy. It’s unlikely he could cope. But then again it might just answer his question.
“I don’t need help, I need pills” moans Judy in Peter Quilter‘s take on what might have happened in her Dorchester suite the year before she died, when she was in London to perform a five-week-run of concerts at London’s Talk of the Town with pushy husband-to-be* Mickey Deans (Stephen Hagan) in tow and only her pianist really looking out for her.
Past her creative peak, fuelled with booze and pills and terrified of going on stage there were plenty of resonances to make the Whingers feel deeply uncomfortable too. How they related to Judy’s plight. Only the previous night they’d made their stage debuts at the King’s Head Theatre in Showstoppers! With no pianist to clean them up and gently coax them into the spotlight, Phil’s courage had been distilled in the Netherlands and Andrew’s fixed, beatific smile clearly proved that he’s finally mastered the child-proof cap.
The Whingers had written a review of a faux musical which the Showstoppers! cast had to improvise without any previous knowledge of its contents. One of the “highlights” forced upon the hapless cast was a song and tap number performed as they ate cream crackers. Bennett may have stopped short of the Jacob’s but she proved a convincing Judy even when singing with a cigarette and a pencil firmly clenched in her mouth.
Her performance is simply astonishing. Moving from sobriety to addled desperation she’s funny, needy, maddening and charismatic. It”s quite impossible (and unwise if you were one of the people around her in 1968) to take your eyes off her. She even gets away with a canine impersonation, though with her propensity to find drugs an airport sniffer dog might have been more appropriate.
There’s some agreeably restrained celebrity name-dropping: Deanna Durbin, Mickey Rooney and Liz Taylor who was “so charming you just wanted to run her down with a car”.
There are thrilling excerpts of her concerts although the Whingers found themselves distracted by the hotel furniture which remains on stage making it less Talk of the Town than Talk of the Dorchester. But with the cocktail of Ritalin and booze coursing through her veins she probably had no idea where she was, so we’ll take that as a metaphor.
Up against Bennett no one stands a much of a chance, so it’s a small wonder that Hilton McRae makes a huge impression as her witheringly dry piano accompanist. He’s especially touching in the scenes where he does Judy’s make up and unsuccessfully tries to convince her to drop Mickey with an offer to take care of her in Brighton. Why Judy….WHY?
And if you’re a visiting London and planning to take in The Mousetrap see it before EOTR. Judy doesn’t do spoiler alerts.
We have to confess that we weren’t really expecting to like this, the biodrama format rarely hits the Whingers’ spots and there is no biodramatic cliché greater than Judy Garland. And Peter Quilter wrote the less-than-inspiring Glorious – the story of Florence Foster Jenkins which limped along at the Duchess for a while in 2005.
But Bennett, McRae, the six piece band and the musical direction of Gareth Valentine combine to make this show nothing short of unmissable. Terry Johnson‘s direction works miracles to convert the watery text into something akin to wine and William Dudley’s Dorchester design is utterly convincing – the Whingers were astonished to see that what was from row F quite obviously a beautifully patterned carpet turned out to be a painted floor. And, really, isn’t that what makes showbusiness so delightful?
But Miss Bennett’s performance is no mere surface trickery- she appears to inhabit the role of Judy Garland so completely that we are quite sure that in our dotages we will swear that we saw Judy Garland live in London.
Lesley Mackie snaffled the Olivier Award for her uncanny 1986 Judy in Judy at the Strand Theatre. Bennett will no doubt have awards, er.., garlanded upon her if there is any justice in the world.
For once the Whingers were more than happy to ovate as indeed was the entire auditorium save eight people, one of whom was in a wheelchair. Another was a Variety critic.
* Fantastic silent British Pathe footage of the wedding at Chelsea Registry Office here.
(but five for Bennett’s performance)