Writer: Peter Quilter
Director: Daniel Buckroyd
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
It’s December 1968 and Judy Garland has been booked to perform at London’s Talk of the Town for a five-week run. There can be little doubt that she needs this engagement – previous concerts in Australia have been a shambles thanks to her chaotic personal life and her finances have not been well-managed. She is accompanied by Mickey Deans, her fiancé, after a whirlwind romance, who is acting as her manager. All appears well – her favourite pianist, Anthony Chapman has been persuaded to return and Deans is keeping her clean from drugs and alcohol.
But somehow Garland doesn’t seem to understand her predicament. She shifts wildly from spoilt child to out-and-out diva: frequently childish, always the centre of attention. She seems thoroughly unlikeable and one has to ask why these two men should seem to care for her so very much or how a person with such a prodigious talent as Garland had could hold herself in such low esteem. For as the play goes on it becomes clear that much of her behaviour is founded on insecurity and, especially after the interval, the veneer is stripped away and we see that crippling self-doubt come to the fore with Garland becoming a more sympathetic character as a result.
The play is set in Garland’s hotel suite and the Talk of the Town: David Shields’ lush set allows us to switch between the two in the twinkling of an eye, although at this performance there were some minor malfunctions.
Lisa Maxwell’s Garland is genuinely unpleasant, still living in the past. She is believably insecure and difficult to cope with as Deans and Chapman fight to curb her self-destructive streak. And yet when she sets foot on the stage of the Talk of the Town, she belts out numbers like a true star. Maxwell’s voice is powerful and redolent of Garland’s with excellent phrasing and intonation. It maybe lacks a little of the raw power of Garland, but there is little doubt that Maxwell can belt out a song alongside the best in the business. There is passion and longing as she sings I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby, You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want To Do It), and The Man That Got Away. But can her self-doubt be kept at bay without chemical help? And if not, what will the outcome be? We see her descent graphically after the interval as Garland’s performances become more erratic; her persona ever more needy and pathetic. Rarely off stage, and as with the lady herself, all eyes are drawn to her and her antics. Maxwell’s performance is a charismatic tour de force.
By contrast, Gary Wilmot’s Chapman is underplayed – quiet, reserved, stereotypically English. While it is clear there is needle between his character and Deans, he remains supportive. A scene after the interval when Chapman helps a panicking Garland prepare for her latest performance is both moving and touching, made more so by Garland’s subsequent behaviour towards him. Wilmot’s Chapman forms a fixed point within the maelstrom of Garland’s life offering, in his words, unconditional love.
Deans, as played by Sam Attwater, remains more of an enigma. One is never sure whether he is the good guy or not – he entered Garland’s life as her drugs courier after all. He certainly makes the right noises, but, when push comes to shove, one is never sure how will he react to circumstances. Attwater keeps us guessing – can he be the gold digger that Chapman believes him to be, despite having full knowledge of Garland’s finances? Or is he truly driven by love for this damaged woman? Our perception moves back and forth without ever coming to a definitive view. What is clear is that there are no passengers in this cast and that their manoeuvring around one another are firmly seated in truth, assisted by the sure directorial steer of Daniel Buckroyd that drives our emotions as our perceptions of the characters change.
But the night belongs to Maxwell’s Garland and her powerful rendition of a broken woman desperate for love and stability but unable to ask.
It is indeed a sobering thought that in the six months or so following these events Garland was dead from an accidental overdose having married Deans.
Runs until 20 April 2o16 and on tour | Image: Pamela Raith