END OF THE RAINBOW
Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 20th October, 2011
Judy Garland was a tragic figure, make no mistake about that. Her dependency on drugs and drink brought about her premature demise at the age of 47, back in 1969 following a five week stint at the Talk of the Town and her fifth marriage to purportedly shady character, Mickey Deans.
So why go to see a play that documents those last few weeks? Is it like going to see Titanic and just waiting for the iceberg?
Peter Quilter’s script shows us the diva off-duty, carrying on in a hotel room, knocking back the drinks, begging for Ritalin, wretched and retching, and swearing like a navvy. It is a startling experience at first. Tiny actress Tracie Bennett looks (from the balcony, at any rate) like Judy Garland. She sure as hell sounds like Judy Garland, but how peculiar to see this backstage behaviour and gain this insight into the private life of one of the biggest icons – from the days when divas had talent, and not the insipid worthless brigade that infest popular culture these days…
But I digress.
Bennett’s performance is jaw-droppingly good. She stalks around the stage, throwing herself across the furniture, and singing her head off. Scenes in the London hotel room are interspersed with numbers from her set at the Talk of the Town, and gradually, scene by scene and song by song, we witness her terminal decline.
It’s all a bit ghoulish but, tastefully, we are spared a re-enactment of her actual death. Her pianist steps out of character and narrates the plain facts. Tracie Bennett sits up and belts out Over the Rainbow. Curtain. Standing ovations. I’m not saying the performance doesn’t merit them, – it bloody well does – and it’s not Judy Garland’s fault that her story is now a showbiz cliché.
I suppose the script is dramatically unsatisfying. It reminded me a lot of another play of Quilter’s, the comedy Glorious, based on the life of hopelessly inept soprano and New York socialite, Florence Foster Jenkins and her friendship with her pianist, the wonderfully named Cosme McMoon. Jenkins was drunk on her enthusiasm for performing, for which she had no aptitude whatsoever. Garland was a conduit for talent itself, and drunk on anything she could get down her neck. Perhaps there’s a more interesting drama that compares and contrasts the two, about why the talented are often tortured and destroyed, while the talentless prosper and pollute our culture with mediocrity.