Arts Theatre, London
Judy Garland is “back in town”, and in writer and director Ray Rackham’s musical there are three of her. While the elder CBS Judy (Helen Sheals) struggles to re-fashion her stage persona to suit the more intimate surroundings of television’s The Judy Garland Show, Belinda Wollaston’s Palace Theatre Judy, allows us to see Garland in all her record-breaking pomp. Meanwhile, Frances Gumm metamorphoses into a young Judy (Lucy Penrose) vying with Shirley Temple to win the part of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
All three are uniformly excellent. Not only did I have to check that their photographs in the programme were not in fact of the real Garland, I frequently had to remind myself that they were singing live, and not lipsyncing, such was the astonishing mimicry of Garland’s truly unique voice and mannerisms. The difficulty of singing this convincingly in someone else’s voice, night after night, cannot be over-estimated.Tom Paris’ beautifully simple studio sound-stage set, creates a backstage intimacy perfect for eavesdropping on the histrionics that follow, as Garland fights successive producers for supremacy. She is the star and will damn well do as she wishes, despite the fact the viewing public are switching off their TV sets in droves.
As if things were not bad enough Garland has not filed a tax return for several years, has unpaid debts across Europe and the Americas, and creditors are queuing up at the studio gates to get their money. Garland is finding it all a bit of a nuisance. Not least when a blackmailer turns up and takes what’s left of her diminishing returns.
In the background is the monstrous figure of Mrs Gumm (the irredeemably terrifying Amanda Bailey), who nowadays would almost certainly find herself in the dock, charged with child abuse, and Judy Garland’s father, (Joe Shefer, also the band’s piano player) who was an abuser of a much darker hue altogether. This was news to me. I didn’t realise just how little I knew of Garland’s actual story, told here without embellishment. The simple truth – if that’s what this is – is gripping enough.
Throughout the recording of her television show, Garland, displaying a hubristic disconnect from both her fans and reality, refuses to sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. We are treated instead to a veritable treasure trove of songs from Garland’s career – many of them featuring not one, but two Judys. “I Feel a Song Coming On” (well, this is a musical, after all) is sung by the elder two Judys, while “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” features the young and middle-aged Judys. Confused? Then just sit back and enjoy that spine-tingling shiver all over that only the very finest singing can produce.
The vocal performances from all three ladies are never less than truthful, and for that reason, touch the parts other musicals can’t reach. Of course, the audience’s almost physical reaction to the music (brilliantly played by the “house” band) is abetted by the visceral seam of near-mortal emotion that runs through Garland herself, never more so than when she finally sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, down the telephone, to John F Kennedy. “Give my regards to the good people of Dallas”, she urges him.
On the face of it, it seems extraordinary that Judy should be restricted to such a short run in an off-West End theatre, but there is something so perfect about the intimacy the cast and producers have created in these surroundings that it would be a shame to move it. Best just get yourself a ticket while you still can.