Writer: Peter Quilter
Director: Daniel Buckroyd
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
Even 47 years after her death, there is still as much a fascination with Judy Garland’s personal life as there is with her stage and screen career.
Garland’s life is the ultimate showbiz tale, the child star forced into an endless spiral of drink and drugs by her stage mother and the studios, heralding a lifetime battle with addiction. Her life in the spotlight taking a terrible toll on a woman who just wanted to be loved.
Peter Quilter’s End Of The Rainbow was a hit in the West End in 2010 and is now revived in a new production at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre ahead of a UK Tour.
Quilter’s script may not be ground-breaking in terms of new revelations about the final months of Garland’s life, in London for yet another attempt at a comeback with a six-week residency at The Talk Of The Town. What it does offer, though, is an insight into the humour the woman had, a barbed one-liner ready for every time someone got close to her. It’s a classic defence mechanism but one that barely hides the pain that permeates her life.
It should be a moment of triumph for Garland, a new man (soon to be husband number five) in the shape of Mickey Deans and a London residency that gives her the chance to rebuild her career, and more importantly, pay off some of her accrued debt.
Garland being Garland, though, and the self-destruct button isn’t far away and we witness the painful slip back into addiction and despair.
Daniel Buckroyd’s beautifully fluid production balances the public and personal personas perfectly, switching between the Ritz Hotel Suite and The Talk Of The Town nightclub with ease. It would be easy just to focus on the star herself but Buckroyd wisely gives us time to understand the two men in Garland’s life at the time. Her fiance and her pianist.
Sam Attwater’s Deans could easily become a panto villain but Attwater shows us this is a man unable to stand up to the sheer force of nature that was Judy Garland. He may be out to make a name for himself as a top-notch manager (with a client guaranteed to gain him headlines, if only for the wrong reasons) but he’s also protective of his nest egg, even if that’s not the 100% love she requires.
Gary Wilmot’s Anthony is at the other end of the scale. One of a string of devoted pianists to the star, his gay lifestyle a mirror for the large gay following Garland attracts. Whereas her fiance may not love her, Anthony is devoted to her, even though he can’t offer her the ‘fireworks in the bedroom department’ she craves. It’s a sensitive portrayal by Wilmot that balances the firebrand Garland well.
That frazzled yet unfaded firebrand has become one of entertainment’s most iconic images and, therefore, a daunting role for any actress but in Lisa Maxwell’s stellar performance one she claims totally as her own.
From her first entrance, the likeness to Garland is uncanny, her diminutive stature belying the vocal power. There’s a childlike innocence here, tempered with a wild sexuality that shows a woman who was never fully allowed to grow up. As she descends into further despair, it becomes almost painful to watch as Maxwell’s comic timing, honed in her own TV series, comes to the fore, showing us the never-give-up spirit of a woman desperate to entertain but also the counterbalance of a woman who found being onstage terrifying.
Of course, no show about Garland would be complete without song and Quilter’s script carefully weaves in a number of scenes from Garland’s nightclub residency that see her battle, not always successfully, with the nerves, the drugs and the sheer weight of expectation from her fans. From The Trolley Song to The Man That Got Away,Maxwell’s performance is faultless. Every vocal inflection, every phrase an uncanny and moving rendition. By the time we get to the inevitable Over The Rainbow, delivered as a soulful torch song by Maxwell, there’s hardly a dry eye in the house.
It’s a career-defying performance from Maxwell, returning to a stage singing role after a 16-year absence but one that is ably supported by a beautifully conceived production. From witty in-jokes about The Wizard Of Oz, to three wonderfully observed performances, there’s more than happy bluebirds flying over this faultless production.
Runs until 20 February 2016 then tours | Image:Pamela Raith
Related article:INTERVIEW: Lisa Maxwell
Further information: www.endoftherainbowtour.co.uk