Peter Quilter’s remarkable play with music about a drug-addled Judy Garland during her final concert stint at London’s Talk of the Town at the tail end of the 60s has returned to the venue that gave birth to it at the beginning of 2010.
And it’s great to have it home.
Tracie Bennett quite rightly won huge accolades for her extraordinary performance as the ultra-dependent, immensely insecure bundle of fragility that was Judy in her later years and it remains a towering achievement, both vocally and emotionally. She commands the stage, and the immediacy of the Royal auditorium adds a real electrical charge to the passion, the commitment and the raw vulnerability.
But this is much more than a one-woman show, and Hilton McRae is just as impressive – if a little overshadowed – as her unassuming, gay Scottish pianist who is the real rock in her turbulent world. His playing – both as actor and musician – is delicate, meticulous and deeply touching. Musically, he fronts a fantastic six-piece on-stage band that sounds so much more than the sum of its parts, and there’s a stunning first-act coup de theatre when they make their initial appearance.
Coupled with very able support from Norman Bowman as Judy’s last husband Mickey and Robert Maskell in a handful of delightful cameos, Terry Johnson’s masterful direction creates a night guaranteed to bring the audience leaping to its feet in admiration and amazement.
The tough, uncompromising material notwithstanding, this is a landmark production for the Royal & Derngate and one to be cherished. Miss it at your peril.