Peter Quilter's drama-with-songs, seen earlier in Northampton and, in a different production, the 2006 Edinburgh Festival, is a sympathetic look at the decline and fall of Judy Garland.
Quilter focuses on one of her last major cabaret appearances, at London's Toast of the Town in 1968. We see her in her hotel room, backstage and onstage, being respectively unsteady, panicky and glorious, while her fifth-husband-to-be Mickey Deans and a fictional composite pianist try to hold her together.
Its central revelation, which can't be news to many, is that a lifetime of drug and alcohol dependency made Garland unable to perform or even function without chemical aid, so that Deans, who begins the play by lovingly trying to keep her away from pills and drink, is driven to providing them just to get her onstage.
A show like this depends almost entirely on its star, and I found Tracie Bennett uneven. As a singer she captures Garland's style, phrasing and, with considerable help from the sound engineer, the timbre of her voice remarkably well, and she does the familiar spread-legged stance and flailing arms perfectly - but then again, so can every drag queen in the world.
And that is the biggest reservation I have about Bennett's portrayal of Judy on and offstage. She doesn't especially resemble Garland, even with the wig, so her portrayal is dependent on external imitation, and at times she isn't doing Garland as much as impersonating a drag queen doing Garland.
Her offstage Judy also has touches of Phyllis Diller, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor and even Liza, so that we're too much aware of an impressionist at work rather than being brought fully into the character.
In the course of the play we see Judy singing sober and doped to the gills, and the actress who played her in Edinburgh, Caroline O'Connor, made it clear that while the performances were different, Judy was magnificent even when she was hardly conscious. Bennett chooses to play the doped-up Judy as stumbling around and barely functional, a legitimate and more touching (and probably more accurate) portrayal, but one that captures less of the special quality that made Garland a legend.
Stephen Hagan is adequate if more-or-less invisible as Mickey, while Hilton McRae is droll as the pianist who stands in for all of Judy's gay fans, and then chilling as we see that his (and their) adulation is also a leeching drain on her waning mental and emotional resources.
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- End of the Rainbow - Trafalgar 2010