In 1964 I watched the television programme Sunday Night at the London Palladium fascinated and horrified in equal measure, as Judy Garland struggled to give some form to a performance that lurched from dramatic intensity to blurred confusion. The teenaged Liza Minnelli, summoned to appear with her mother, offered loyal support as disaster was averted.
Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow takes up the story some four years later, in the last months of Garland’s life, when she was faced with the prospect of remaining clean and sober for a five-week season at the Talk of the Town. The play focuses on her relationship with two men: Mickey Deans, about to become husband number 5, and Anthony, the British pianist engaged as Musical Director. Mickey tries to keep her straight (out of love or simply protecting his investment?) and Anthony offers sympathy and scepticism while Judy’s behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre. The hotel room setting occasionally gives way to the Talk of the Town where Judy charts an erratic course through her repertoire, an echoey PA system somehow adding to the sense of desperation.
As polished and intelligent entertainment the play is fine, but despite Tracie Bennett’s star turn culminating in a spectacular drunk scene I reached the interval largely unmoved. However, the scene between Judy and Anthony at the start of the second act takes us to greater emotional depths than the wise-cracking, emoting and demanding Garland of Act 1.
This touring version of the West End success, under the sure-footed direction of Terry Johnson, is a pretty classy affair. William Dudley’s designs are stylishly hotel-elegant and an excellent six-piece band under Jon Ranger is on hand despite the full musical numbers being a mere handful.
Tracie Bennett strikes all the right poses as Judy, relishes her contrasts and contradictions and, I suspect, brings out her unique appeal, to which I was always immune with the real Judy Garland: I would have loved to meet her in St. Louis, but no further down the line. Cleverly the Talk of the Town numbers, in the late Garland over-blown, over-vibratoed style, are contrasted with the numbers done “for real” (including “The Man that Got Away” and “Over the Rainbow”) which Bennett delivers superbly. She is well supported by Norman Bowman (Mickey), cleverly suggesting alternative views of a pretty unlikeable character, and Hilton McRae (Anthony), sardonic, camp and increasingly moving, a finely-judged performance.