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5-star Through The Mill at Southwark Playhouse

Through The Mill - Photograph by Darren Bell
Through The Mill – Photograph by Darren Bell

Everybody knows the story of Judy Garland, the talented singer and actress who, through the pressures of early stardom and emotional and physical insecurity, was driven into addiction and an early death. Most people, when asked to describe Judy’s life, would use the word Tragic. Her tragedy, however, is not the primary focus of Through The Mill. Through the medium of three cleverly interwoven timelines, writer and director Ray Rackham explores, celebrates and illuminates the woman herself in all her flawed, passionate and marvellous glory.

We meet CBS Judy first; a woman in her early forties, bowed but as yet unbroken by her tumultuous past. Deeply in debt, she is about to transition for the first time to the small screen on the short-lived Judy Garland Show and, flamboyant as ever, she is not making it easy for anyone around her.

We then cut to an awkward, nervous teen, inescapably dominated by her mother and about to meet the MGM executives who were to change her life forever.

Her final incarnation is Palace Judy, a mature but still deeply insecure and troubled woman making one of her many triumphant come­backs at the celebrated New York Theatre of that name.

These three Judys dominate the stage, their charisma and vitality electrifying cast and audience alike. When moving and singing together, as they often do, they are an indomitable triumvirate. Rackham has them weaving in and out of each other’s stories, silently supporting each other, making of them one woman. And yet, unusually for a play with such fluid timelines, there is never any confusion; it is always perfectly clear where we are and when.

Through The Mill - Photograph by Darren Bell
Through The Mill – Photograph by Darren Bell

This is partly due to the clever lighting and staging; the set is split in such a way that one Judy can be quite naturally smoking a cigarette in the background while another argues with her mother up front. Versatile props and scenery are used throughout the play in different scenes, serving different purposes, meaning that set ­changes are largely unnecessary.

Supporting cast members quite naturally become talented members of the orchestra, playing their instruments with brio when not needed for a particular scene. When a song finishes and the scene changes, a cast member strolls on stage whistling a few bars of the tune, giving a pleasant feeling of continuity despite the time shift. Everything is quick, slick and professional.

After the interval, the action slows somewhat. The focus is primarily on the older Judy, and her passionate arguments with the show producers and her ex-­husband become repetitive. This may be a deliberate attempt to show her spirit and her unwillingness to give in to authority, but I feel they could have been pared down somewhat without losing any impact. Thankfully the pace picks up again and all three Judys career on their chaotic way without losing too much audience sympathy.

All three of the women playing Judy have worked hard to capture her idiosyncratic mannerisms and speech at the different points in her life, and my goodness has it paid off. Throughout the course of the show, there are many wonderful moments when it is possible to forget that you are not watching the lady herself. Older Judy Helen Sheals has the elegant demeanour and the seductive, knowing growl down pat. Belinda Wollaston has arguably the least material to work with in terms of character depth, but she makes up for it with truly astounding vocal and physical performances and possibly the sexiest love scene I have ever seen on stage. Lucy Penrose has the hardest task as young Judy; however, she completely nails it. Her facial and physical development from peppy, awkward, slightly pudgy child to blossoming young woman is believable and very touching.

And then, of course, there are the songs. From Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries to You Made Me Love You to The Man Who Got Away, hit after glorious hit, all performed with superb vocal and acting talent by the three women, sometimes separately and sometimes together. There are moments when the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you realise that you are holding your breath. Of course, the whole audience is waiting for Over The Rainbow, just as the public did throughout Judy’s life ­ much to her irritation. She characteristically keeps us waiting, only relenting right at the end.

The one I found most touching, oddly, was The Trolley Song. Not the most romantic or pathetic of tunes by any means, but as we watch the determinedly smiling and waving young girl being whirled around the stage by the very people who were supposed to love her and take care of her it is as though we are watching her very life spinning out of her control.

Through The Mill has all the hallmarks of a huge hit; a supremely talented cast, an original and fascinating story and high-class production values. This may well be Judy Garland’s biggest come­back yet.

5 Star Rating

Review by Genni Trickett

Set primarily during the filming of The Judy Garland Show in 1963, Through the Mill chronicles the production difficulties behind the scenes, intercut with the young Judy Garland’s rise to fame through MGM in the 1930s, and her triumphant sell-out concert engagement at the Palace Theatre in the early 1950s.

Illustrating why Judy Garland was, and continues to be, one of the great legends of show business history, Through the Mill goes beyond the rainbow, and explores the life of a woman destined for greatness; as loved today as she was when she first made her way along the yellow brick road. For both audiences new to Garland’s extensive back catalogue in the world of film and music, as well as the true Judy aficionado, here is an honest, entertaining and moving portrait of a legend; as courageous, determined, sincere and funny as she was memorably tragic.

The show features a hit list of Judy Garland favourites, including The Trolley Song, The Man That Got Away and Over the Rainbow, with a sixteen strong company of actor musicians, and a cast headed by three actresses playing the legend herself. The three actresses from the original run will reprise their roles at Southwark Playhouse. Helen Sheals (Downton Abbey) plays CBS Judy, native Australian Belinda Wollaston plays Palace Judy, and newcomer Lucy Penrose plays Young Judy.

Creative Team
Director – Ray Rackham
Musical Director – Jordan Li Smith
Musical Supervisor & Arranger – Simon Holt
Choreographer – Chris Whittaker
Set Designer – Johnson Williams Design
Lighting Design – Jack Weir
Sound Design – Ed Shaw & James Neale
Associate Musical Supervisor – Peter Dodsworth
Costume – Millie Hobday & Evie Holdcroft
Hair & Makeup – Leanne Steedman
Casting – Samuel Julyan
Photogaphs by Darren Bell

CBS Judy – Helen Sheals
Palace Judy – Belinda Wollaston
Young Judy – Lucy Penrose
Sidney Luft – Harry Anton
Hunt Stromberg Jr – Rob Carter
Roger Edens – Tom Elliot Reade
LB Mayer – Don Cotter
Judith Kramer – Carmella Brown
George Schlatter – Perry Meadowcroft
Ethel Gumm – Amanda Bailey
Norman Jewison – Chris McGuigan
Frank Gumm – Joe Shefer

Through The Mill Ltd presents Through the Mill
by Ray Rackham
6th July – 30th July 2016
Running Time 150 mins including interval


  • Genni Trickett

    Genni is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows. Genni has been passionate about theatre from an early age, performing in various productions throughout school and university. She is currently an enthusiastic member of an amateur dramatic society in South West London. Her favourite thing about living in London is the breath-taking variety of shows and theatrical talent. https://www.facebook.com/genevieve.trickett

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