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End of the Rainbow - Trafalgar Studios (review)

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

WITH HER long history of deep-rooted psychological problems, an ever increasing dependency on drugs, her nicotine addiction and alcohol abuse, it’s little wonder that Judy Garland dug herself an early grave.

However, it’s quite another matter to watch it happen but, by presenting the audience with an intimate behind-the-scenes account of her final ‘comeback’ concerts at London’s Talk of the Town, that’s exactly what Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow does.

And it sometimes makes for uncomfortable viewing, not least because Tracie Bennett’s performance as the tortured Garland is so convincing and utterly mesmerizing. Already an Olivier Award winner, I’ll be surprised if a nomination at the very least isn’t on the cards.

For two seemingly short hours, Bennett is Judy Garland, a woman riding an emotional roller coaster to self destruction. But with a script that is sharp, witty and frequently laugh-out-loud funny – even during Garland’s darkest, most undignified moments – it’s not depressing. Sad yes, that someone so talented and who captured the world’s heart as the wide-eyed innocent Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz should end her days so.

Hilton McRae, with his wonderfully telling facial expressions, also turns in a fine performance as Anthony, Garland’s devoted Scottish pianist and musical director. That he truly loves her and would do anything to save her, is never in doubt. But the ageing Anthony is not only gay but also content to live a simple life and that just won’t do.

Instead, Garland opts for fiance and soon-to-be fifth and final husband, the young and handsome Mickey Deans, played with flair and confidence by Stephen Hagan. Here we have a man caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, a man whose determination to keep his future wife on the straight and narrow is undermined by her reluctance to comply. Only his motives remain a mystery…

For the most part, End of the Rainbow is set in Garland’s hotel room but the transition to Talk of the Town, complete with six piece on-stage band, is ingenious. And it’s here that Bennett performs some of Garland’s most memorable songs, among them The Man That Got Away, Come Rain or Come Shine and The Trolley Song.

However, it’s her rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow that tugs at the heart strings. Sung when it is (and I’m not giving it away), it’s especially poignant coming as it does from someone whose happiness was as elusive as the rainbow’s end.

An inspired performance from Bennett, plus excellent support, makes End of the Rainbow a show not to be missed. And an added bonus is Trafalgar Studio 1’s wonderful seating arrangement that gives audience members unrestricted views of the stage, particularly gratifying when it’s a show of this calibre.

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