Having seen Tracie Bennett's multi award winning Judy Garland in the original West End outing for Peter Quilter's End of the Rainbow, I was a little trepidatious about seeing Lisa Maxwell take on the iconic role in the current touring production. As it turns out, I needn't have worried.
Since comparisons are odious, let me get this out of the way right now: at present, Maxwell isn't fully mining the darkness of Judy almost at the end of her fitfully glorious, constantly troubled life in the way that her predecessor did. Bennett left you in no doubt that here was a soul teetering on the brink of personal armageddon. Here, Maxwell is a little too mannered and cute to fully let go, although I suspect that may come later in the tour given how many other aspects of this performance are so on the money. She is a skilled mimic and is probably a more natural vocal fit for the Garland sound than Bennett was. Physically as well, there are times when this Judy almost morphs uncannily into the divine original.
Quilter's script is really a good Bad Play. There's nothing here that we don't already know but at the same time we are mostly spared those ghastly "remember that time when..." speeches that weaker bio-plays can be prone to, although the sheer size and familiarity of the Judy Garland story may be a factor in that. But who doesn't want to eavesdrop on an icon behaving badly? The play convincingly makes the point that the only truly satisfying relationship this vulnerable diva ever had was with the spotlight. Quilter's Judy is maddening, adorable, desperate, sexy, tragic, witty, pathetic, even repulsive. Maxwell skilfully and magnetically captures almost all of this, and, I think, will get better and better. The piece as a whole proves compulsively watchable, and is often very funny.
As her (so it turns out) final husband Mickey Deans, Sam Attwater is suitably handsome and youthful, if a little uncomplicated. More ambiguity and threat would be helpful in delineating this controlling, often unpleasant character. Gary Wilmot plays Anthony Chapman, the faithful English pianist/friend (the majority of the play is set in the Savoy hotel suite the Garland-Deans occupied during Judy's disastrous final stint at Talk Of The Town in the 60s) and he is a likeable stage presence but feels miscast. This un-flamboyant gay character is devoted to Garland and offers her at one point an idyllic, if impossible, respite from her hectic, toxic life that we know she never ends up taking. It should be deeply moving but is delivered here in such a perfunctory fashion that it barely registers. In the original West End staging Hilton McRae broke our hearts but in this production Wilmot barely bruises. A natural showman and comic, Wilmot seems ill-suited to this sort of low key role.
Daniel Buckroyd's production is slick and well-paced, but I do wish the actors weren't so conspicuously miked. It took me a couple of minutes to get on board with the performance as it proves so alienating when every line sounds as though it is coming out of a loudspeaker rather than a human body. I got used to it, but it is a genuine turn off. David Shields has designed an appropriately opulent hotel suite set that transforms seamlessly into the stage of the Talk Of The Town at frequent points in the evening.
Ultimately though, it is Maxwell's show and she is pretty magnificent. This is a potent reminder that she was an actress before she became best known as one of TV's Loose Women.
End of the Rainbow runs at Churchill Theatre, Bromley until 12 March and then tours the UK.