A trailer full of plaudits for Tracie Bennett – with a tantalising snippet of “Over the Rainbow”
Two triumphant aspects dominate End of the Rainbow, Peter Quilter’s play-with -music that explores Judy Garland’s turbulent season at London’s Talk of the Town in 1968, months before her death, whose run at the Trafalgar Studios has been extended to April.
The first is Tracie Bennett’s visceral, committed performance as the brittle icon nearing the end of a tether already frayed to breaking point. Bennett inhabits the role with tremendous assurance, layering the multiple nuances between fragile hope and bleak despair with such brilliance that you leave the theatre exhilarated and exhausted in equal measure.
She leads a two-hour guided tour of the ravaged landscape of Garland’s pharmaceutically ravaged psyche, veering from brazen diva-dom to wretched neediness via a clawing desperation, without resorting to a single gimmick or clichéd gesture. And that’s just the acting.
When the back wall of William Dudley’s fantastically evocative set – an expensively vulgar, late 1960s Ritzy hotel suite – rises to reveal the band, it becomes the Talk of the Town stage. And Bennett is also revealed as a superb singer, conjuring the throaty Garland vibrato with such uncanny accuracy that at the height of many of the numbers, it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a play about a long-dead show business superstar.
In this, she is helped immeasurably by Terry Johnson’s meticulous direction and the musical supervision of Gareth Valentine, who discretely helms the band while Garland’s conductor and accompanist Anthony (a nice turn by Hilton McRae, his sympathy for the fading star ebbing torturously away as she becomes ever more unreasonable) effects control on stage.
Using Chris Egan’s sympathetic arrangements with flair, Valentine whips up the authentic sense of a Talk of the Town band of the time, its slightly desperate bounce and verve signifying the authentic struggle for attention over the clatter of cutlery, the chatter of the audience and constant popping of champagne corks – and the battle to keep pace with the capricious demands of the volatile performer they were obliged to serve.
The play is peppered with a selection of Garland classics: “The Trolley Song” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” are typically frantic moments for the band, while “The Man That Got Away”, the inevitable “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the defiant “By Myself” give Bennett the chance to extend her performance into the stratosphere. Despite the bang-on-target timbre, at no point is this ever an impersonation or a tribute. You won’t find a more complete dramatic interpretation anywhere on the West End stage.
All of which helps to disguise some weaker moments in the play itself. Garland herself is a huge part of the problem. The histrionics, the unstable behaviour, the drink and the drugs, are all so well known that there is nothing new to say about them. Genuine revelations about Garland’s plight are well nigh impossible, and the play’s point occasionally becomes muddled. A previous attempt by Terry Wale in 1986 to dramatise her life (Judy at the Strand Theatre) stumbled in the same way, although it featured an equally compelling and award-winning performance by Lesley Mackie in the title role.
Peter Quilter’s decision to focus on such a specific moment towards the end of Garland’s life, making it a metaphor for all her trials, might have been more effectively served by a monologue in the Piaf mould.
The characters of Anthony – a kind of everyman figure who represents kindness, reason and ultimately, abandonment (most of Garland’s friends necessarily chose self-preservation in the end) – and Mickey Deans, her fifth husband, who was with Garland at the end, are rarely more than ciphers for Garland to fence with. And in the end, she was mainly fencing with herself. Deans, in particular, remains a shadowy character whose influence on Garland as her talent and life drained away could take more scrutiny than End of the Rainbow allows. So, too, could her relationship with her audience – by this stage in her career frequently combative and abrasive, with an unhealthy dash of sadism on both sides.
But if the play isn’t always quite the thing, Tracie Bennett certainly is. Her performance alone is worth the price of a plane ticket and a hotel in town. And with an album of songs from the show in the pipeline, this role places her fairly and squarely on the top rung of musical and dramatic stage actors. Whether you are a Garland fan or not, catch her while you can.