Review – End of the Rainbow, Trafalgar Studios

Thursday 25 November 2010

Phil couldn’t help but be reminded of an anecdote the late theatre critic Jack Tinker used to relate.

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.

Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland - End Of The Rainbow“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.

Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland - End Of The Rainbow

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.

This is so good it knocks Elena Roger & Piaf into a cocked hat.

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.


Rating score 4-5 full-bodied

(but five for Bennett’s performance)


25 Responses to “Review – End of the Rainbow, Trafalgar Studios”

  1. JohnnyFox Says:

    you say Dorchester, Shuttleworth says Savoy but Charlie Spencer and I understood that Judy and Mickey Deans stayed at the Ritz from 28 December until they moved to the house in Chelsea (4 Cadogan Lane)

  2. JohnnyFox Says:

    and row F … did you pay for the seats?

    OughtToBeClowns and I were shunted to next-to-back row P … before that, I didn’t know the alphabet went so far 🙂

  3. A Clown Says:

    Shunted I tell you!! Though not together.

    Totally agree with your review, and a definitely well-earned ovation as opposed to the one ground out of the audience by the FELA! curtain call.

    JohnnyFox, I’m sure you gone at least one letter further…I refuse to believe you have not been previously admonished, on many an occasion, to mind your Ps & Qs 😉

    I was surprised at how little it bothered me being that far back though as I was loving the show so much.

    • JohnnyFox Says:

      There are no Q’s at the Whitehall – sorry – Trafalgar Studios, except for the unfeasibly few toilets, it goes straight from P to R. And I’ve not often been asked to mind my R’s … oh, well, perhaps I have 🙂

  4. Dickie and Butch Says:

    Hopefully seeing this at some point in the run; I think the claim of it bettering Elena Roger’s Piaf is a strong one (she was incredible – ‘tour de force’ indeed) but then we love bio-musicals and we love Tracie Bennett – what could go wrong?

    • JohnnyFox Says:

      I think you’ll love it – only thing that could go wrong is La Bennett will exhaust herself on 8 shows a week, there’s already a standby/alternate Judy mentioned in the programme …

  5. Ali67 Says:

    Such a great review… And then only 4/5?!

    I sense Bennett stealing the Olivier Award away from Sheridan Smith at the 11th hour…

    • Karl Says:

      I would hope she does! Bennett deserves awards a part she was seemingly born to play!

    • M.Richardson Says:

      Ok – Olivier nominations are out, and Smith and Bennett are both nominated, but in different categories! Sheridan as Best Actress in a Musical, and Tracie as Best Actress in a Play. Both would be very worthy winners, so let’s hope that the judges acknowledge the respective talents of these two amazing entertainers!

  6. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Entirely possible that I’m wrong about the hotel. And it’s a hell of a performance. But the play itself is deeply meh. “Here’s Judy at the end of her life, this is what she was like…” – yeah, and…?

  7. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    I think we were probably mildly overcome. Though not as much as Charles Spencer, presumably on the theatrical viagra again, he attributed William Dudley’s set to John Napier.

  8. Not surprised you loved it, we did too in Northampton in February. Tracie Bennett is About As Good As It Gets.

  9. David Says:

    Yes, Ali67, exactly right: five stars for Tracie Bennett, but four is generous to the play.

    And then again, there’s Judy herself at Carnegie, and anyone who hasn’t heard that first has no right going to this show.

  10. Robert Says:


  11. Goodness. There’s so much middle-aged queenly campery in here and it’s all gone to such a high pitch that somewhere in Hampstead, a dog is barking.

    Well, it’s hardly surprising. The authors (and probable readers) of this blog are so fairly, squarely and gaily the target audience for this play that I’m amazed you didn’t just uncork another Shiraz during your wine time and give the old girl 5 stars.

    As Edina Monsoon once said to two gay men in the presence of Patsy’s older, meaner sister: “God, you’re predictable, aren’t you? A bitch with a drug habit and you’re anybody’s, aren’t you?”

  12. Chris M Says:

    So why, if it was as good as you say, AND the rare occurrence of you ovating, is there an empty glass in your rating? Seems a little churlish, unless of course Judy or Perhaps Phil got to it first.

  13. Anthony J Says:

    To say that Peter Quilter’s previous West End play Glorious “limped along” at the Duchess is a bit much. It ran 6 full months and was nominated for the Olivier Award as Best New Comedy AND has since played in 30 countries worldwide (according to Wikipedia). So why so against this writer? Did he refuse to buy you a drink at the interval or something? I actually think his writing on End of the Rainbow was amazing. You only need to see a dozen other Biog plays to realise what an incredible job he did. All us New York folk are really looking forward to the Broadway transfer which apparently is on its way. Now give it the 5 full glasses it deserves!

  14. Theatre Fairy Says:

    I wonder if the voice that cried out during Jim Bailey’s performance belonged to the same person who let out a similarly agonised wail during Liza Minnelli’s show at the Coliseum in 2008. During a momentary pause in Ms Minelli’s patter came an agonised and desperate “We love you, Liza!”. Scared the rest of us to death. She looked a bit frightened as well.
    Going to see this on the 5th – can’t wait!

    • daveonthego Says:

      Ha That sounds familiar I think I remember that. The mawkishness of that performance had me peering through my fingers on more than one occasion though it was excruciating LOL

  15. David Says:

    I may have missed it, but I think they’ve taken out the Mousetrap spoiler. Don’t remember it at all.

    Amazing performance from Bennett. Impossible to imagine how it could be better

  16. Roger Risborough Says:

    Heresy alert, heresy alert . . .
    Just seen EOTR at Richmond.
    Let’s start with the play . . . I think it’s really poorly written, just tick-boxing along a known timeline. The programme lists the songs in the show, so you know when they’re coming. They didn’t need to do the same thing with the ‘jokes’ because you can see them coming from a MILE away (the 1970’s), so you don’t know whether to not laugh at them when they’re set-up or not laugh at them when they hobble into the action. Tough choice but I went for both options. Now Tracey . . . yes, amazing, sort of, but it’s a performance played with the choke out and foot flat down all the way through. Exhausting – for player and audience. Sorry – but it’s not a three dimensional performance and it does lapse into karaoke caricature at times. The trouble is, we are asked to be impressed by the singing performance of an actress impersonating someone whose career and performances are in a tail-spinning descent. For the second time in two weeks I found myself the only person still seated in the front row at the curtain call. Sorry Tracey (and sorry Vanessa). Is it just me?

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