Ray Rackham’s play feels like a surefire hit; a play about the various, sometimes infamous, stages of Judy Garland’s life complete with live performances of her famous hits. It isn’t a particularly original or daring story to tell but it is such a classy and warm production you can forgive the minor flaw.
The play is mainly set backstage on The Judy Garland Show (1963) with Helen Sheals, who despite looking more like Edith Piaf, completely encompasses Garland in her difficult later years as she struggles with her addictions and TV producers. This is intercut with Judy in her younger years with Belinda Woolaston as Palace Theatre Judy and Lucy Penrose as young Wizard of Oz/MGM Judy. All women are completely convincing as Garland through the years and I particularly enjoyed watching Penrose with Amanda Bailey as Ethel Gumm, Garland’s cold and demanding mother. The play looks at her relationships with her family (only one Liza reference, sadly), with her men and ultimately herself, her lack of confidence, her ups and downs both personally and professionally make Garland’s story perfect for the stage.
There is great support with Harry Anton as Sidney Luft, Judy’s third husband, Tom Elliot Reade as Young Judy’s supporter Roger Edens and Chris McGuigan’s Norman Jewison standing out and other members of the cast proving their multiple talents as both orchestra and performers. It feels like it could do really well on the West End, attracting a mainstream audience but it will inevitably lead to comparisons with Tracie Bennett in End of the Rainbow and its strength is its intimacy with the audience.
Through the Mill is on until 30 July http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/through-the-mill/