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Friday, 11 February 2011

End of the Rainbow (Review)

Yesterday I was lucky enough to go and see Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland in the Trafalgar Studios production of End of the Rainbow. I'd heard it was good beforehand (The Independent review was outstanding) but even I wasn't prepared for how amazing it actually was.

Tracie Bennett was stunning. You honestly couldn't tell where Judy Garland ended and Bennett began. Everything from the voice downwards was perfect. The way she held herself, the hand gestures, the manner of playing with the microphone wire on stage - it was very easy to mistake Bennett for Garland. The songs, in particular, are almost undistinguishable. I've bought the CD of Bennett singing Judy's classics and, even as a dedicated Garland fan, I have to concentrate to tell the difference. 'I Could Go On Singing' and 'San Francisco' are two of the best. To give all due credit to Bennett, at that stage in her career Garland was very difficult to imitate - her unpredictability made certain of that.

For those unfamiliar with the play, it takes the starting point of Judy's relationship with the man who would be husband number five, Mickey Deanes. As she struggles to perform, Deanes relents and gives her the pills he has been trying to keep from her. Deanes' pressure on Judy juxtaposes harshly with the kind and gentle treatment she receives at the hands of her pianist, Anthony.

The play could easily descend into hysterical madness. In fact, the audience was in stitches for a fair amount of time throughout, but it was painful laughter, the kind of thing you shouldn't be laughing at but can't help it. A lot of that was down to the perfect combination of Peter Quilter's magnificent script and the delivery of Hilton McRae as Anthony. As the dry and sarcastic pianist, McRae raised laugher through his commentary on proceedings, especially towards the beginning of the play. It is also Anthony who is responsible for one of the painfully funny moments of the play: when Judy steals his bag and takes the pills belonging to a Cocker Spaniel that are inside. Again, it shouldn't be funny - and it actually isn't - but we all had to laugh.

Towards the end of the play, the mood becomes more sombre. Judy is rapidly combusting, which leads to the two most poignant scenes of the piece. The first one occurs is when Anthony is applying Judy's make-up for her; the second is when Anthony proposes that Judy comes to live with him. He tells her she'll have her freedom and no one will force pills down her throat. However, ultimately, she wants the love she thinks she understands from Deanes, rather than the devotion of a gay man. It's an inevitable conclusion but one that is terrible nonetheless.

I can't stress how captivating the play as a whole was. Left alone by Deanes at the end of the first act, Garland sings 'The Man That Got Away'. The audience literally leaned forward in their seats to hear Bennett's rendition of that Garland standard. Although the set is static (the hotel living room Garland occupies with Deanes) it transforms into a stage by the simple lifting of the back wall to reveal the band. A complicated transition isn't needed because it serves as a reminder how intrinsically linked Judy's professional life was with her personal one.

So, yes, I'm recommending this. You don't have to be a Garland fan, although it does help. I was in a daze when I left the theatre after the encore of 'By Myself', and I doubt I was the only one.


May said...

Great review, entirely sums up my own feelings on it as well. I didn't want to go on about it before you went (especially when you didn't think you could go at all) but Tracie Bennett gave the best performance I have ever seen and I genuinely think people will be talking about it for years. I feel so honoured and grateful to be able to say that I've seen it.
Mam and I left the theatre in a daze too, I just kept saying 'That was incredible' over and over again and we talked about it almost the entire way home (incidentally our train was delayed at Preston for 90 minutes as well!). We're still talking about it now in fact.

You sum up really well how sometimes you can't help but laugh, even though it is actually so sad and quite tragic. McRae really was brilliant and I saw he was nominated for an Olivier as well so fingers crossed for him.

How full was it yesterday? When we saw it at the beginning of December, it wasn't very full which was quite disappointing, so Mam and I were the only people in one section. It meant that whenever Bennett turned in our direction it was as if she was looking right us. Both of us were in such floods of tears at the end it was a bit embarrasing but I decided I'd draw more attention to myself if I tried to stop them! I've been in standing ovations before but have never seen the audience leap to their feet as quickly and as in unison.

Anyway, I better stop gushing or I will go on for ages!

CharmedLassie said...

I'm just happy I've got you to talk about it with or I'd be boring everyone around me!

It was a full house yesterday. From the way I had to mess around finding tickets I'd say word's got out and everyone knows it's the thing to see right now. We had half a standing ovation after 'The Man That Got Away', led by a camp guy in front of me who was very invested in the show. Possibly the best audience I've been in.

And, yep, fingers crossed for Hilton McRae. He was outstanding, and if Bennett doesn't win she'll be as robbed as Judy was when she lost out for A Star is Born.

May said...

Agreed, she HAS to win!

It is great when the audience are so enthusiastic and as into something as you are. I've been thinking about when we go down in April and whether or not we should try and get tickets again! Sometimes I hold off from seeing something again because I worry that if it isn't as good it will spoil my memory of the first time - but I think this show is always going to be brilliant. I'm pleased word has got out about it because it was a shame to see so many empty seats when we were there (even though those that were there obviously loved it), though it'll make it harder to get tickets and discounts if we were to go in April!

Tracie Bennett's understudy must have one of the hardest jobs at the moment, and she doesn't even have to perform! Usually I don't mind if someone is off because it's part and parcel of theatre but imagine after all the plaudits, Bennett wasn't on! Poor understudy is probably hoping she never has to do it because the audience will be so disappointed!

CharmedLassie said...

I definitely think you'd be safe risking it again, there's no way it's going to be bad. However, I've no idea what Bennett's having to put into this role. By the end of the run she could be a quivering wreck!

And just in case you didn't know, she's on Elaine Paige this weekend. Looking forward to hearing her talk about the show.