Writer and Director: Ray Rackham
The movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s seem impossibly glamorous to us now, framed forever in silvery black and white or glorious Technicolor, reminding us of a different era of film-making. Whatever their particular skills – be it acting, singing, dancing or all three – we know that in the studio system their fame could come at a hefty price for the individual, controlled by drugs, forced into unsuitable marriages, and the occasional abortion, all to keep the show on the road and the money rolling in.
Judy Garland was the ultimate tragic film star, at once a potent symbol of childhood purity with five husbands, and an enduring battle with addiction that ultimately ended her life. London Theatre Workshop’s Through the Mill returns to London for a short stint at the Southwark Playhouse this week, reimaging Garland’s story as a battle for control using three key periods in her life. Our first Garland is in her 40s and filming her CBS variety show, which is used to frame the story as she endures constant tinkering with the format while reminiscing about her big comeback concert at the Palace Theatre in her late 20s, and her first taste of teenage stardom leading to that major role in The Wizard of Oz. Imagine Sunset Boulevard meets Gypsy with every bit of their timeless appeal.
Ray Rackham’s time-hopping musical is a delight. Importantly, it is more than a collection of well-known songs performed by Garland impersonators; it is a strident examination of the pressures of fame, charting the force Garland became as a performer and personality. The book is wonderfully comic with lines such as “You may recognise me, I’m Liza Minnelli’s mother” sitting alongside sensitive insights into the constant nerves and need to “put on a show” for the public. Some of the most moving moments cross the timelines as CBS Judy sings classics like Do it Again and The Man That Got Away as Palace Judy falls in love with her manager Sid Luft, adding additional emotion to the meaning behind the songs.
While the programme notes point to a deliberate subversion of our idea of Garland, changing her life story to one about the ‘indomitability of a woman refusing to allow her talent to be taken for granted’, it perhaps makes the ending too hopeful. While Garland may have asserted her will in the CBS show, what followed was by no means a happy ending, and a lot of detail is skipped over in between. It does assume a familiarity with Garland’s life which not all audience members will have, so occasionally a little more explanation would be useful without adding to the near three-hours run time.
The three actresses playing Judy are sensational; Helen Sheals as CBS Judy is a mixture of a lifetime’s experience, driven, demanding and churlish but using a girlish flirtation to get her own way. Beneath the surface,however,she’s vulnerable and afraid, steeped in debt but unwilling to act. While the content of these scenes become a little repetitive, Sheals shows how Garland could switch from tender ballad to belting show-tune in an instant. Belinda Wollaston’s Palace Judy is the most nervy of the three, needing constant reassurance and support, developing a tender love story with Harry Anton’s Sid Luft, while Lucy Penrose’s uncanny resemblance to Young Judy melds a beautiful voice with the pressures placed on her to lose weight and be beautiful.
Among the supporting cast, Anton is particularly good as the passionate but practical Sid Luft who tries to steady the ship and protect Judy from those taking advantage of her fame. The rest of the characters are a little thin although they give a sense of the various types in Garland’s life from the pushy mother to the exasperated TV producer all looking to Judy to make money for them. Through the Mill is an exciting and beautifully constructed musical-play that sets a new standard for biographical theatre. Plenty of famous songs are seamless integrated into the moving and engaging story behind Garland’s “quality of heartbreak”. As the radio announcer proclaims at the beginning, it is “pure magic”.