For those who think an actor’s life is glamourous, think again. You may be about to play one of the biggest names in 20th Century showbiz but pressures of rehearsals still mean you have to grab lunch on the fly as you get a much-needed break. Glen Pearce caught up with Lisa Maxwell, who is taking on the iconic role of Judy Garland in a new production of End of the Rainbow by Colchester’s Mercury Theatre and Paul Taylor Mills ahead of a national tour.
It’s been a hectic day for Maxwell; she’s quickly grabbed 15 minutes to get something to eat before the interview, fellow co-star Gary Wilmott is shouting a cheery hello in the background, while Sam Attwater waves hello as he rushes to finish his chicken curry before rehearsal starts again. “This is a bit of a marathon for me,” explains Maxwell as she finds a quiet corner.
“The play is centred around Judy Garland’s visit to London in 1968 where she does a six-week stint at The Talk of the Town.” she explains. “It’s very close to the time of her death and we see this woman’s complete story.”
It was a turbulent time for the iconic singer, she had a new man in her life, Mickey Deans [played by Attwater], a nightclub owner who she’d only been with a couple of months but who would become husband number five.
“They arrive at the Ritz hotel, they are pretty skint, but this is the chance to relaunch her career”.
The show isn’t a musical, though there are many of Garland’s classics such as The Trolley Song and Over the Rainbow performed as we see Judy performing at The Talk of the Town. It’s the mix of music, comedy and drama that Maxwell believes gives audiences plenty for their money. “It’s really good value. You’ve got an award-winning play that’s been on in 22 countries, you get an insight into a real life person which is always interesting, you get all the songs and an insight into the private moments and there aren’t many plays where you get all that.”
The mix of comedy and darker moments are a good reflection of the star herself Maxwell believes. “I think she was a very funny woman but also very tragic.”
So does the actress think Garland was a victim? “I don’t think she behaved as a victim but never the less she was a victim,” explains Maxwell. “She was a victim of a stage mother who was giving her pep pills from the age of 12, she was then a victim of the studio who wanted her on a diet and to work ridiculous hours from the age of 14.”
That pressure, which saw Garland being given drugs to sleep and other drugs to wake up, was the start of a lifelong battle with addiction. “She was force-fed drugs so she never stood a chance.”
Though tragic, Maxwell has also discovered a more surprising side to Garland. “She had the most well-defined sense of humour of any woman I’ve ever come across,” she reveals. “If it was a defence mechanism I don’t know, but she was just hilarious. Even at her most vulnerable and at her most down on her luck, she always managed to make a joke.”
Even 47 years after her death, Garland’s rollercoaster life still generates huge interest. Maxwell thinks part of this is down to the star’s openness. “Back in her time, nobody really ever revealed anything about themselves, the studios were always in charge of the information on their stars. The real artists you never got to see but, with Judy, she wore her heart on her sleeve and everyone got to see everything about her.”
In today’s society, we’ve become accustomed to celebrity culture but Garland was ahead of her time. “Now you’ve got so-called celebrities going into reality shows and giving us every inch of their lives, if we want it or not, and frankly, most of us aren’t interested.” Suggests Maxwell. “For someone who is a genuine star to reveal all of this drama in her personal life and not want to hide any of it from her audience – I think that’s why so many people love her, warts and all.
Maxwell herself was among those legions of fans, even before starting work on the project. “She was just one of a kind. When I was young I wrote to Jim will Fix It to ask to if I could sing a duet with Liza Minnelli.” That fascination has helped with the large amount of research needed for a role such as this “When I said yes to this play, the homework required wasn’t a chore for me, I’d happily watch Judy Garland films all day and all night, read everything about her and watch videos on YouTube – I just can’t get enough of it!” she confesses.
Despite the homework and the love of the subject, it still must be daunting to step into the shoes of such an iconic, and loved, woman. For Maxwell though the first step is simple. “The first thing you do is get yourself a really good vocal coach!” she laughs.
Though she may now be more recognised for her work on TV in long running appearances in both The Bill and Loose Women, Maxwell has a long and varied career on stage and screen in musicals, comedy, sketch show and drama. Though she made her West End debut aged 14 in the original London cast of Annie and has since appeared on stage in musicals such as Grease, it’s been 16 years since she last sang on stage.
“I’ve done plays recently but not sung on stage for 16 years,” she explains. “The fascination of this part for me was you get a chance to use everything you’ve ever learnt in your entire career, whether it’s 16 or 20 years ago. The comedy I did with The Les Dennis Laughter Show, The Russ Abbott Show and The Lisa Maxwell show, I get to use all that with the comedy in the show as well as getting to use my singing voice.”
Her six years as a panellist on ITV’s Loose Women may have brought her to the attention of a new audience but, for Maxwell, the show prompted her to refocus her career. “I left Loose Women to become an actress properly again because I became very lazy doing that show, finishing work at 1:30 and going home,” she explains. “I was at atimein my life when I wanted to be at home a lot to bring up our daughter and spend time with my husband. My daughter is 16 now and it’s now time for me to really do what I do for a living. I really had to show everyone that I’m taking my acting seriously so that’s why I left the show.”
So did she have any doubts before taking the part? “When this came along it was absolutely the right thing for me. As terrifying as it is, it’s what I need. It’s a mountain to climb.”
The show is the latest in a series of productions under the Made in Colchester banner and for Maxwell, the fact that venues such as the Mercury Theatre are staging new productions and taking them out across the country is important. “It’s vital,” she thinks. “It’s really difficult for actors to do a lot of drama on TV, as not a lot of drama is being made on TV anymore, so as long as regional theatres are doing new projects, there’s places for actors to work.”
Maxwell also believes the Made in Colchester branding is now becoming recognised far outside of its Essex homeland. “Made in Colchester have been going great guns and hopefully this production will cement that reputation even more,” she enthuses. “Daniel [director, and Mercury Theatre’s Artistic Director, Daniel Buckroyd] is great and really good to work with and it’s nice to feel you have the trust and support of the whole team.”
And much like her new alter ego, Judy Garland, it’s time to return to rehearsals. After all, perhaps it is only in theatres where the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.
End Of The Rainbow runs at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre from 12 – 20 February ahead of a national tour.
For full tour dates and further information visit www.endoftherainbowtour.co.uk
Image: Pamela Raith