What more is there to be said about Judy Garland? Child actress, troubled adult and taken away from her adoring public way too young. Her story is pretty well known, in fact loads of people ‘know’ every aspect of her life and can talk about the highs and lows as if they had experienced them themselves. But what was it like to actually be Judy? Nobody can really know for sure but Ray Rackham’s new musical Through the Mill at the London Theatre Workshop, gives an audience at least a taste of being Judy at three critical stages in her rollercoaster life.
1963 and Judy Garland (Helen Sheals) is working on her CBS television show. This is her big ‘comeback’ and she really has a lot riding on it, as do her production team – Hunt Stromberg Jr (Rob Carter), George Schlatter (Perry Meadowcroft) and her young Dresser Judith Kramer (Carmella Brown). Things aren’t going to well with the recordings and a replacement Executive Producer in the shape of Norman Jewison (Chris McGuigan) is brought in to revamp the show.
Leaping backwards the action moves to 1935 where Frances Ethel Gumm – Judy’s real name (Lucy Penrose) is really excited that her father Frank (Joe Shefer) has come home from his job running a cinema one hundred miles away. Frances/Judy’s mother Ethel (Amanda Bailey) is not so pleased. She is a pushy showbiz mother who could give Gypsy’s Mama Rose a run for her money and nothing is going to stop her daughter hitting the big time. Luckily, Judy has a friend in Roger Edens (Tom Elliot Reade) who is determined to put her in front of Studio Head Louis B Mayer (Don Cotter) and get the proverbial ‘girl next door’ onto the big screen.
Finally, it is 1951 and following a sell out four months in Britain and Ireland, Judy (Belinda Wollaston) is getting ready for her first appearance at the famous Palace Theatre in New York. Judy is nervous about performing live on Broadway but luckily has her Tour Manager, Producer and Lover Sid Luft (Harry Anton) to provide support and ensure that she pushes through the doubts, pains and sleepless nights – preferably without any of her prescribed friends – and delivers the first rate show he, and the world, knows she is capable of.
So, having one Judy Garland singing on stage is pretty amazing but having three and suddenly I know where the expression ‘My cup runneth over’ comes from. Each ‘Judy’ shows a different side to the legend. The young, and amazingly vulnerable girl, belittled by her mother, humiliated by LB Mayer and barely able to find any comfort as she was put through the studio mill. Yet somehow, this poor, shy, painfully self conscious and downtrodden young girl managed to break the world’s heart, starring in hits with Mickey Rooney and culminating – after nearly losing out to Shirley Temple – in the role forever associated with her, that of Dorothy Gale. Then there is the Judy of the 1950s. With a pill for every occasion and a constant fear that she will not be good enough. A Judy that has to succeed in order to survive – both financially and professionally – who leans on Sid, despite believing he will turn out like every other man in her life. Then finally, Judy tries television. The fear is still there but magnified as she tries to be accepted in millions of homes at once and her principal ‘support’ is a lot of people in suits for whom numbers are the only commodity that matter. Whilst writing this, I have been watching some clips from the television show and it’s interesting how the narrative in Through the Mill fits in with the image projected by the real Judy in the programme.
Writer Ray Rackham has interweaved three amazing stories into each other in a really clever way that really shows these three periods of Judy’s life superbly. I loved the use of multi-talented actor/musicians and was so jealous of the skill showed by them all but in particular Tom Elliot Reade with his ability to act and play the piano, saxophone and clarinet.
And speaking of actors, we come to our three Judy’s. From the get go I loved both young and CBS Judy but for some reason it took me a while to warm to Palace Judy. I’m not sure why, but I just wasn’t fully there with her until the second act. However, all three actresses really did hit the spot Judy-wise. In voice, mannerisms and stage presence, Judy was alive and well and visiting Fulham in fine style. When the three of them sang Over the Rainbow that was me gone once more.
By the end of Through the Mill I can’t really say I knew that much more about Judy and her life than I had before but I had got a greater insight into the lady herself. Her constant need for love – from an individual, an audience even the entire world – and her lack of belief in herself which caused her to continually strive to achieve more, were there for all to see and I can’t help wondering what Judy would have been like if she was still around today. A lovely show about a truly wonderful lady.
Review by Terry Eastham
A new play, written by Ray Rackham: Artistic Director of London Theatre Workshop, and librettist lyricist of last Christmas’ 5* smash, Apartment 40C. Directed by Max Reynolds with Choreography by Chris Whittaker.
Be it on film, on stage, or in people’s living rooms every Sunday evening, Judy Garland was, and continues to be, one of the golden age of Hollywood’s brightest stars. As conflicted as she was celebrated, this new play goes beyond the rainbow and explores the life of a woman destined for greatness; a woman who is as loved today as she was when she made her way along the yellow brick road.
Featuring a veritable hit-list of Garland standards, performed live by a cast of twelve, Through the Mill promises to be a highlight of the Christmas calendar for both audiences new to the entertainer’s extensive back catalogue in the world of film and music, as well as the true Garland aficionado.
Through The Mill
London Theatre Workshop
above the EEL BROOK PUBLIC HOUSE
65 New King’s Road,
London, SW6 4SG