Writer and Director: Cillian O’Donnachadha
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
On an evening of bright sunshine and heavy showers, a rainbow appeared above the Landor as the audience entered for the opening performance of this one-woman show. If the Heavens were signalling their approval, they were right to do so.
Sharon Sexton has played Liza Minnelli in this monologue with songs, both on tour and at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but she is bringing it to London for the ﬁrst time, taking a break from her rôle in The Commitments in the West End to do so. Telling the story of Minnelli’s life, focussing primarily on the early years, the show begins with black and white footage of Judy Garland introducing her teenage daughter to a television audience, followed by a medley from Gypsy and then ‘Broadway Baby’.
There is a fair amount of name dropping – Frank Sinatra visited her in hospital on the day she was born, etc – but this is not a simple riches to riches story, as we hear how Liza entered showbiz in the face of opposition from her mother and how she was forced to clamber down the ladder before climbing back up. She tells of sleeping rough in Central Park and of being rejected for rôles, most ironically for the lead in the Broadway production of Cabaret. After that, broke and desperate for work, she consoled herself by buying a Cartier watch, exemplifying her philosophy that “reality is something you rise above”.
Sexton does not impersonate Minnelli, she becomes her, digging deep to ﬁnd the real person beneath the ﬂamboyant, glitzy facade. Her exaggerated movements, her nervous giggle, her self deprecating humour all reveal a woman who is caught by the limelight, yet strangely vulnerable, living the life that she leads because she has never known any other way. She apologises for not being able to volunteer bad news about her childhood, recalling idyllic moments when her playtime was directed by Vincente Minnelli and she causes howls of laughter when she describes a show at the London Palladium in which she and her mother battled to upstage each other. As she sang her solo, she saw a proud mother standing in the wings and, then, when it ﬁnished, she saw not her mother but Judy Garland, a ﬁerce rival, standing on stage.
At Garland’s funeral wake, Liza took her ﬁrst valium, to begin a downward spiral of pills to counter other pills and so on, the anguish of which is expressed in a rendering of Sondheim’s ‘Losing My Mind’, bringing tears to the eyes of both the performer and the audience. Otherwise, regretful glances from Sexton are enough to tell of the drug and liquor problems and of the failed marriages. This is essentially an upbeat celebration of the life of a survivor and Sexton proves it with her glorious versions of the big numbers from Minnelli’s biggest success, the ﬁlm version of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret.
Carefully written and with well chosen songs, this is a production which makes 80 minutes just ﬂy by. Above all else, it is a triumph for Sharon Sexton’s performance, a real tour de force and even Liza Minnelli herself would be hard pressed to top it.
Runs until 17th May