Through The Mill, was last seen at The London Theatre Workshop, before it moved to new premises in Leadenhall Market. This new incarnation is more sophisticated, more ambitious and nuanced. It marks a big step in the development of this very satisfying and interesting show. Ray Rackham’s labour of love is currently at the Southwark Playhouse.
The show starts with America’s fading sweetheart, Judy Garland, starting rehearsals for her CBS television series. Judy is moving into another new phase of her career, another challenge, and another set of circumstances that potentially bring into play the personal demons that Judy Garland was famous for.
Through The Mill ducks and weaves, highlighting three distinct periods in the star’s life. We jump from CBS Judy to Young Judy as she struggles with her over zealous and ambitious mother auditioning for her first roles at MGM. Then we meet Palace Judy, managed by her new husband Syd Luft, struggling to prepare for her Palace Theatre concert dates. This is the story of three Judys, and yet it is the extraordinary story of the one Judy; a woman of great strength, many deeply seated insecurities;perhaps the greatest entertainer we have ever known.
The task to find one actress to inhabit the role of Judy Garland would be difficult in the extreme. To find three, would seem impossible. And yet, the director and writer Ray Rackham, has assembled three simply stunning performers. Each illustrating their individual role in the story while remaining extraordinarily complimentary. The vocal performances alone are worth more than the ticket price.
CBS Judy is played by Helen Sheals. She is all steely determination, cocky bravado, while remaining the exasperating and wonderfully fragile star. A woman of small stature, carrying an immense weight on her shoulders, Sheals shows a depth of character and understanding that underpins every moment, including her impressive turns as Judy the performer.
The story of Judy Garland is the story of a woman battling with her own demons caused by the pivotal relationships in her life. None were more important than the relationship she had with Sydney Luft. Watching Belinda Wollaston effortlessly tackle the performances of some of Miss Garland’s most iconic on-stage moments, while dealing with the complicated relationship she shared with Luft is engrossing. Her strong voice matched her dramatic instincts in a most difficult role.
Harry Anton, as Syd Luft, manages to make Syd a real person. He is perhaps a man difficult to like and yet easy to love. His resonant speaking voice carries every tone of his performance to the back row of the Southwark Playhouse; raspy, demanding, difficult and sexy. The very difficult, and important, scenes that Belinda Wollaston and Harry Anton share work much better in this production. They effectively provide a great insight with both tender and histrionic performances.
Young Judy is artfully played by Lucy Penrose who it would appear is channelling Judy Garland directly from heaven’s soundstage. Watching this young actress process thoughts and engage audiences is impressive to watch. She manages to convincingly portray Judy from the age of twelve, through to young adulthood. Surely it is an indicator for a long career ahead.
The ensemble cast are all worthy of praise, particularly as many of them pick up and play musical instruments at various times. Tom Reade and Chris McGuigan are particularly effective in their roles as Roger Edens and Norman Jewison.
The direction, by the show’s writer, Ray Rackham is confident and complicated. He manages to bring many textures to this familiar story, with great effect.
The mulit-layered set by Justin Williams, full of ‘showbiz’ memorabilia effectively works for all the backstage and onstage action. William’s design frames the production in dusty hues of the past, with very sympathetic, and often dramatic lighting design by the talented Jack Weir; sometimes shadows, sometimes showbiz spots and silhouettes. The difficult task of costuming a period drama of the scope of Through The Mill has been accomplished to great affect by Millie Hobday and Evie Holdcroft. The music accompaniment and underscoring is of absolute importance. Simon Holt’s Musical Direction has managed a mostly credible sound for the musical numbers, of which there are many.
This production of Through The Mill is a giant step in the development of a new show. Could there be a more difficult task in all of the world than writing, producing, developing and steering a show through its development, to it’s ultimate success? This is the wonderful task undertaken by so many small theatrical houses in London. London Theatre Workshop is on a winner. This is by no means the perfect production of a perfect show but it is both exciting and wonderful to see so much talent at work on such a worthwhile project.
Through The Mill deserves to transfer to a West End venue and receive the next stage of its development; with some cuts, some tightening, and more disciplined music production, this show will fly.
Go see it. Three stars are born at the Southwark Playhouse.