“I’m Judy Garland, now pay me some respect”
The enduring legacy of Judy Garland may be considered the preserve of gay men of a certain age but but what Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow, a play with songs rather than an all-out musical, reminds us is that hers was a tragedy in which all of our increasingly celebrity-obsessed society is complicit. The play is set in the months leading up to her death in 1969, as desperate to pay off her debtors, her new young fiancé and manager Mickey Deans signed her up for a five week run of cabaret shows at The Talk of the Town though as became clear to see, Garland’s struggles made it a very difficult time.
With the press against her, willing her on to ever more scandalous deeds, friends deserting her as her drug dependencies also pushed away four husbands, and a career that was nosediving as a result of all this drama, Deans was banking on this being the comeback of all comebacks. But Quilter shows us through a number of scenes, that the extremities of her behaviour impossibly strained the relationships in her life, even with her devoted Brighton-based pianist Anthony, her body and mind warped by endless years of being a part of the fame game and unable to deal with being chewed up and spat out by the Hollywood machine.
Paul Taylor Mills and Mercury Theatre, Colchester’s touring production of End of the Rainbow, in association with The Belgrade Theatre, is blessed with a fiercely strong performance from Lisa Maxwell as Garland, an almost disturbing and distressing portrayal of a woman ravaged by addiction, desperate for love and willing to make do with attention. Her slight frame trembles and quivers, even in the lighter moments of her sharp-edged one-liners, and in her determination to get her own way, whether to get the pills or to get off them in one of her more lucid moments, Maxwell is utterly committed and highly watchable.
She’s also a skilled performer, delivering impassioned versions of the songs that Garland made her own – among them ‘The Trolley Song’, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, an extraordinary ‘The Man Who Got Away’ – Tom Turner’s musical direction full of brassy ballsiness and tender heart too. And as the men in her life, Sam Attwater gives a good account of Deans, making us believe he could well have loved her as well as seeing his meal ticket in her as he struggles to keep a lid on the pill bottles. And Gary Wilmot is entertaining as the gay pianist who worships her, would do anything for her, if only she would say yes.
Daniel Buckroyd’s direction keeps the play moving with a great sense of pace, aided by the smooth transitions of David Shields’ design, from the dated grandeur of the hotel suite to the gaudy glitz onstage at the club. And as Maxwell inhabits Garland for one last time in the stirring rendition of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, it is impossible not be moved. If she doesn’t quite scale the heights that Tracie Bennett reached in the same role six years ago, it is only because that was a once-in-a-lifetime performance. This is a welcome return for End of the Rainbow.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 12th March, then touring to Princess Theatre, Torquay; Theatre Royal, Windsor; Theatre Royal, Brighton; Malvern Theatres; Wolverhampton Grand Theatre; Kings Theatre, Glasgow; Opera House, Manchester; Forum Theatre, Stockton on Tees; Sheffield Theatres; Lichfield Garrick Theatre; Tyne Theatre & Opera House, Newcastle; Richmond Theatre; Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds; New Victoria Theatre, Woking; Wycombe Swan; New Alexandra, Birmingham; Orchard Theatre, Dartford; and Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham