“ Theme: West End musical show depicting the last days of Judy Garland / Location: Trafalgar Studios / Opened: 22 Nov 2010 „
I got tickets for this show with a vague understanding that it had won some awards, and that it was about Judy Garland. Beyond that, I had no idea what to expect. As it turns out, it was one of the best shows I have ever seen. What helped to set the scene nicely was seeing a preview of the new Wizard of Oz production the night before. The beginning of the road, and the end of the rainbow in 2 nights so to speak.
The setting of the show is 1968, with Judy Garland booked in for a 5 week season at the 'Talk of the Town' as part of a planned comeback. A great proportion of the show takes place in a hotel suite, and occasionally switches over to radio studio/stage show. At the start we have Garland appearing reasonably clean and drug free with a new fiancée (Stephen Hagan) in tow who is managing the tour. We also have her pianist (sensitively played by Hilton McRae) trying to keep things together. It doesn't take long to see exactly how many cracks there are in the set-up and Garland's state of mind. So in short, we get to see the behind the scenes behaviour of Garland and her small entourage, and some complete songs sung in stage style by Tracie Bennett. This plays out until Garland's death by the end of the production.
From the basic plot description, you couldn't really get a very fair picture of what to expect when you see the show. Well I can tell you it has pretty much everything.
In parts it is very funny - usually very darkly so, but sometimes just laugh out loud funny (I am reminded of a desperate Garland taking dog pills for mange just trying to get some sort of drug hit).
It is also tender and painful to watch (watching Garland struggling to remember her lines on stage is a fine example of this), as Garland's personality follows the path of so many stars - she has a massive ego which needs to be satisfied constantly to fill the black hole which seems to continually swallow her self-confidence.
The songs are performed powerfully and beautifully (although I heard somebody afterwards saying there was something of the Shirley Bassey in the singing style).
The stage construction is by and large kept very simple as the hotel suite dominates the style. The exception to this being when the back drop is set aside for a full band performing behind Bennett for the stage show. I have seen some productions recently where the set changes have been integral to the show - slickly and quickly changed over as events unfurl in some cases (39 steps and Jersey Boys spring to mind). However, in this case, the backdrop could have been an alley and a couple of dustbins to sit on, and it still would have worked - you simply cannot keep a good story with good performers down.
The interesting twist in the way this stage setting works is that when Bennett is singing the stage show numbers, you actually become the live audience at the Talk of the Town as well as the back stage audience watching it all happen - a very clever yet simple trick.
By the end of the show I am not ashamed to admit there were a few tears welling up in my eyes (I doubt there were many who did not feel this way). A standing ovation was entirely justified for this magnificent production. How Tracie Bennett can perform this intensely and flawlessly night after night is completely beyond me - usually I just take it for granted that the performers do what they do best on a regular basis. The fact that I am left feeling this way just drives home how comprehensively Bennett tackles this role - you almost feel that you are watching her own decline in front of your eyes.
One final note - I think it would be unfair not to remark on the language used in this show. Although I do not imagine anyone would consider taking children to a show about a drug addicted has been, let me reassure you that children are not an option. The language used throughout would make the proverbial navvy blush. I was personally not at all offended by this and felt it necessary, but some may feel differently.