Review: End of the Rainbow – Trafalgar Studios 1 ****

The trouble with bio-drama, where the dramatic crux of the play is driven by the biography of the central figure, is that generally they are heavy on the bio, light on the drama.

End of the Rainbow, at Trafalgar Studio One, narrowly escapes this difficulty, probably because the central figure is Judy Garland, a performer whose life was so heavy on the drama that the biography part is marginally less interesting.  Aside from a few moments of anecdotal reminiscing, Peter Quilter’s play keeps a narrow focus on the explosive relationship between Garland and her last husband, Mickey Deans, set against the backdrop of her final London performances before her death in Chelsea in 1969.

Stephen Hagan as Mickey Deans, and Hilton McRae as Garland’s fey pianist, Anthony, perform well with the limited material they are given.  Neither is much more than a broadly drawn stereotype, and a cipher whose role is merely to accentuate Tracie Bennett’s bravura performance as Garland.

This is a performance that should guarantee her awards and one that rightly deserves the standing ovation she receives.

And such a performance – Bennett uncannily channels Garland; the voice, the gestures, the willow-the-wisp personality – they are all there.  For too long Bennett has worked the supporting actress roles, finally End of the Rainbow gives her the opportunity to take centre stage as a leading lady and she seizes the opportunity.  This is a performance that should guarantee her awards and one that rightly deserves the standing ovation she receives.  She howls, crawls, weeps, and wisecracks her way through the show at a blistering pace.

Although Quilter’s play ends a trifle mawkishly, and the first act seems overlong, the concert sequences are staged magnificently, with Gareth Valentine presiding over a six piece band and Chris Egan’s orchestrations allowing us to hear Garland’s greatest hits as if for the first time.  William Dudley’s set transports us from Garland’s hotel room to the concert stage with ease, and it is on stage that Bennett is at her most exhilarating, perfectly capturing Garland’s exceptional star quality, while never merely caricaturing her.  This is no mere impersonation. Garland lives.

Director Terry Johnson stages the proceedings beautifully, although the rendition of The Man That Got Away which takes place in the hotel room, does seem out of place.  While underscoring the inherent problem with Garland, that her personal life was inextricably linked with her public persona, this is a play with songs rather than a musical, thus the music is diegetic.  The conceit that Garland can simply break into song, accompanied by a six piece band, is incongruent given the structure of the play.

It is Tracie Bennett that holds this show together and raises it above mere biopic.  It seems appropriate that her final number is By Myself, that is the strength and heart of this show – Tracie Bennett.  By herself.

**** (4 stars)
Runs until 5th March 2011
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