The life of Judy Garland has been the subject of many books, plays and other theatrical works. Not long ago Peter Quilter’s The End Of The Rainbow enjoyed great success both in the West End and Broadway in a production helmed by Terry Johnson. That play, like so many others, focused on what might be called the “Pills and Performance” section of Garland’s life – her battle with prescription drugs and her ability to perform despite of or because of said drugs.

But there is more, much more, to Garland’s life than that depression-fuelled period. Now playing at the London Theatre Workshop is Ray Rackham’s new play, Through The Mill, an absorbing and inventive look at lesser studied portions of Garland’s life. Rackham’s conceit is simple but inspired: take three distinct sections of Garland’s life and career and set them in motion against each other, demonstrating the varied, but constant, pressures and difficulties Garland faced throughout her career and highlighting her constancy of response, her continual striving to be the best she could.

This approach yields insightful results. Although the three stages of Garland’s career are very different, there are startling similarities. Hope and experience give way to anger and regret, but, throughout, the need to perform pulsates through the fragile singer’s blood. Three actresses play Garland at the different stages and this simple choice ensures that the audience is always reminded of the different aspects of Judy Garland which came to dominate at times. Equally, each incarnation of Garland sheds light on the others, and together they ensure a greater understanding of the complexities and nuances of this phenomenal star.

The innocent Judy, awaiting news of whether she or Shirley Temple would land the role of Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz faces contempt from her mother, a woman who would make Mrs Worthington incontinent with a sideways glance, and the studio men who think they know what constitutes talent in a young girl. The working Judy, twice-divorced, the toast of Europe and a veteran of sold-out nights at London’s Palladium, anxious about her solo debut at The Palace Theatre on Broadway while being cajoled and caressed by her volatile lover, Sid Luft. The wiser somewhat battle-weary Judy, fronting a weekly variety television programme for CBS, worried about blackmail, betrayal and the format being foisted upon her, the focus group research, and the cold, blank stares of the executives who think they know what constitutes talent in a television star.

At every stage, Rackham puts Garland through the mill. And, at every stage, she triumphs, at least in some way. Rackham intertwines fact with artifice to produce a long, but absorbing, and often quite fascinating, play. Occasionally the dialogue creaks or groans, but often that is a result of poor delivery rather than ill-judged penmanship. This is as finely crafted, and arrestingly fresh, an autobiographical play as might be wished for.

The final moments are enchanting and full of emotion. Each of the three Garland incarnations sing her signature tune: one full of impossible hope, one full of desperation and duty, and one full of resigned, weary commitment. Together, they present a cracking rendition of Over The Rainbow, one that eloquently expresses all the pain and joy the song meant to Garland throughout her life. The song made her and she made the song; artistry and artist fused in a full spectrum of experiences.

The programme lists Max Reynolds as the director but Rackham himself stepped into to finish directorial duties just prior to opening. It is difficult to tell whether this has been a good or bad thing, because there are serious flaws with the presentation, but one has the feeling that those flaws owe more to the lack of resources and time to mount this production and initial casting choices than Rackham’s dual, albeit last minute, role.

The production utilises a number of actor musicians. Except in the case of quite remarkable people, opting for that choice usually means that some aspect of playing (either character or instrument) will suffer. Not always, but usually. In a piece such as Through The Mill, where the sound of the era is as critical as the notes and lyrics of the songs, it is a false economy to skimp on the orchestral support.

That is not to say that Simon Holt has not done an excellent job in supervising and arranging the music – he has – or that the playing was constantly bad. But it was erratic, and neither drums nor brass were as they might have been and, really, needed to be to provide the required period pulse. Peter John Dodsworth kept a cool head in relation to the music; tempi were sound and, mostly, so was the balance between voice and band.

Sets and costumes (Johnson Williams Design, Millie Hobday and Evie Holdcraft) provided a clear sense of time and the passage of time. The space was cramped, but Chris Whittaker’s movement made the most of a difficult situation and although there was some awkwardness about the occasional exit or entrance, in the main the action flowed easily and with style.

While the basic burden of the play rests on the trio of Judys, the play cannot reach the heights it might without the other cast members being at the same level. Here, for the most part, they were not. This might be a matter of more rehearsal time, or it might be a question of skill sets, but really only Perry Meadowcroft and Tom Elliot Reade held their own against their Judy. Both Rob Carter and Harry Anton looked good in their roles, but neither seemed at ease; indeed, each would have been better off playing the other’s role.

However, there are no such reservations about the trio of Garlands. None made the mistake of trying to imitate the original. Each played the essence of the character at the particular stage of her life, adopting mannerisms, posture and particular sounds to create a solid, breathing, feeling and quite wonderful impression. Particularly impressive was how each of the three managed to reflect the others, so that each Garland had snatches of past and future Judy about them, and all seemed a coherent whole. Physically, the actors are not particularly alike, but they became a trinity of mother, daughter and Hollywood ghost.

As the young eager starlet in the making, Lucy Penrose was quite splendid. Channelling long awkwardness and uncertainty, but also clearly showing her own understanding of herself and her talent, Penrose artfully showed the ugly duckling transform into a big screen swan. She played her scenes with her mentor, Roger Edens (Reade) excellently and the sense of their camaraderie was tangible, a perfect contrast to her relationship with her draconian mother (Amanda Bailey). Blessed with a gorgeous voice, Penrose was an absolute joy.

Helen Sheals took on the Television Garland (circa 1963) and missed no opportunity afforded by the text or song list. She has a full, throaty and whiskey stained voice which suits the material perfectly. Effortlessly conveying the sense of a longtime addict, Sheals subtly revealed the tattered chintz around the lamp which, still blazing, attracted moths of all kinds, wanted and unwanted. Her perpetual sense of resentment and disbelief was splendidly judged and there was real humour to be found in her  exchanges with Hunt, whose name she pronounced with an emphasis which required no reference to Next Tuesday to make its point. Her portrait of Garland in the final stages of her huge career was fine indeed.

In 1951, after a sellout season in London, Garland took on the vicious New York crowd and fronted them at the Palace Theatre. She was at the height of her powers but also riddled with self-doubt and probably self-loathing, dependent upon alcohol and prescription drugs to get by. It is this version of Garland which Belinda Wollaston tackles, the version with which most people are familiar from anecdotes and other media. For obvious reasons, this is the hardest part of Garland’s life, at least those parts of it covered in this play, for a performer to place a fresh spin on the character.

Wollaston is superb. Picking up the “little girl” energy from Penrose and foreshadowing the wily negotiator that Sheals becomes, she surfs the emotional spectrum between the two, tossing in a sensual carnality which is bracing and a sense of bewilderment at the way she is treated – particularly by those meant to love her. Her strong, brassy voice suits the material perfectly and she nails mannerisms and performance techniques which were part of Garland’s performance technique. Of the three, Wollaston’s Judy is both the most expected and the most unexpected.

With a visionary director, a proper band, some male actors equal to the trio of Judys, this could be a powerful and exciting evening of theatre with music. As it is, it is testament to the quality of the work that it succeeds as well as it does. Without doubt, it is more entertaining than the production of Funny Girl due to transfer to the Savo next year.

Rackham’s work should be given a further life. Through The Mill, properly fundedcould be really go over the rainbow.

Four stars

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Through The Mill - Review
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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.