Having already been staged at Royal and Derngate, Terry Johnson's production sees Hilton McRae and Stephen Hagan reprising their Northampton performances as Garland's musical director and her fiancé-turned-fifth husband Mickey Deans respectively.
The show sees Judy Garland attempting another stage comeback, this time in December 1968 with a series of London concerts at the Talk of the Town. Garland battles with a tornado of drugs and alcohol as she tries to reclaim her crown as the greatest talent of her generation.
Critics last night saw performances of some of Garland's best-known songs, including "Get Happy", "The Man That Got Away" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", as well as a portrait of a woman very much on the edge. Garland died in London following an accidental drugs overdose on 22 June 1969, aged 47.
Did the critics find gold at the end of Bennett's rainbow?
"A star is well and truly reborn at Trafalgar Studios where Tracie Bennett brings to vivid last-gasp-of-life Judy Garland ... Over the days of the play, high hopes turn to high drama as Judy's personal demons rear their ugly heads ... The two men currently in her life... tussle for dominance, one offering a chance of escape, the other switching from protector to force-feeding enabler. Tracie Bennett is a performer who I've always admired for her abundant verve ... With Garland, in full amphetamine-fuelled frenzy and paranoid desperation, Bennett has the role of her career and she gives it the performance of her life ... Bennett's Garland veers from comedy to rage to pathos, a manipulative, out-of-control mess. The onstage concert scenes, in which Judy fights with her mic lead, confuses numbers, forgets lyrics and spins around like a whirling dervish, are simply terrifying to watch as you worry whether she's about to either fall over or implode ... Terry Johnson's slick production also afford Bennett an opportunity to demonstrate her own Garland-like vocal power... she delivers a spine-tingling rendition of 'Over the Rainbow'. A fitting tribute to two extraordinary talents that wins a richly deserved standing ovation."
"It is not often that an audience rises in unison as if wired together like a table-footie team. It happened for Tracie Bennett's extraordinary performance as Judy Garland ... Bennett comes garlanded with best supporting awards, but this is stardom. But Peter Quilter's beautifully structured script asks far more, even musically ... She has to lose it on stage, tangle in the mike lead, shriek out a number wired on pep pills, or, alone on the carpet, choke tearfully through 'The Man that Got Away' ... And she has to be a wit, a wiseacre, someone to like ... Terry Johnson's direction is clear and unfussy, and the balance... is particularly fine. Whenever you feel unease at being a voyeur of a dead woman's decline, Judy cracks a line or belts a number that restores respect. Whenever you relax into the comedy, you are moments from being jerked back into horror ... The moments of greatest emotion are all unexpected — Judy's horror of the pill bottle, her farewell to the pianist, Anthony's distaste when left alone with Mickey. At the heart of it a brilliant, chaotic, difficult, abused and beloved artist is paid a fitting tribute. 'Immortality', as Judy says sadly, 'might just make up for everything.'"
"Unless they have some radical new information to impart, I could happily accept a moratorium on all bio-plays about Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Maria Callas. This one by Peter Quilter reprises the sad saga of Garland's last days ... But its only real virtue is that it gives Tracie Bennett a chance to offer an impressively plausible portrait of the doomed star both on and off stage ... Fortunately this melancholy saga is interspersed with glimpses of Garland in action singing some of her bestknown songs. Quilter's play, however, deals in symptoms rather than in causes ... It says virtually nothing about a Hollywood studio system that in the 1930s pumped its child stars with amphetamines ... The play also offers few insights into performance psychology ... The play's main virtue is that it does at least show Garland could be funny ... And, of course, there are always the songs, which Bennett delivers with the right mixture of emotional intensity and vocal bravura ... Hilton McRae also gives an impeccable performance as her loyal accompanist ... And Stephen Hagan as Deans does all he can with a character who shifts from stern protector to master-manipulator ... It's hard to love a play that invites us to wallow in Garland's tragic decline without offering much in the way of enlightenment."
"In Peter Quilter’s bio-drama Garland is brought vividly to life by Tracie Bennett. Deftly directed by Terry Johnson ... Quilter uses the London concerts Garland gave right at the end of her life as an opportunity to delineate the agonies of her inexorable decline. His Judy is a troubled, erratic diva ... Bennett’s performance is courageous — raw, emotional and astonishingly energetic. It’s much more than a skilful impersonation; it feels as if she has assimilated the essence of Garland’s personality. She’s well supported by Hilton McRae, who as her camp accompanist proves a witty yet touchingly awkward counterpoint to the bristling, businesslike urgings of Stephen Hagan’s Mickey. While this is the kind of fare guaranteed to elicit standing ovations, there are times when End of the Rainbow veers towards histrionic schmaltz. It’s somewhat repetitious and not genuinely illuminating. Still, this is surely essential viewing for Judy Garland fans, who will savour its moments of knifing poignancy, and Bennett is superb.
The Independent Online
"It’s a terrible old cliche that it takes a star to play a star – but in the case of Judy Garland there never has been and never will be a star big enough to fill her tiny red shoes ... During the course of Peter Quilter’s play with songs End of the Rainbow the amazing Tracie Bennett finds it. You can’t play Garland, you can only inhabit her and that’s precisely what Bennett does ... Bennett’s own wiry frame and wired delivery exhibits uncanny parallels with Garland’s own and vocally there isn’t a huge adjustment to be made before you start believing you are listening to the real thing ... Emotionally speaking, this is far from being a cut-and-paste job ... When Garland’s loyal gay pianist (the excellent Hilton McRae) offers to take her out of the nightmare ... you think for a second or two that she might actually... save herself ... Bennett’s anguish as she realises that she has just dismissed her last chance is palpable ... When Bennett sings "The Man that Got Away" she already knows that Mickey Deans – the last man in her tragically short life - is most definitely not Mr Elusive ... It’s a simple but neat theatrical device that takes us from hotel room to stage and back again and the frisson of excitement as Gareth Valentine’s cracking little band is revealed for the first time ... Bennett... aspires to keep the memory alive and she gives us what is by any standards an astonishing turn. She might as well collect the Olivier now.
"There are moments in the theatre when you lean forward in your seat with shivers racing down the spine, and realise there is nowhere on God’s earth you’d rather be ... End of the Rainbow is one such occasion, offering one of the greatest musical theatre performances I have ever witnessed. Tracie Bennett’s star turn as Judy Garland in the last raddled months of her life is blackly comic, deeply harrowing and superbly sung, and will be talked about for years to come ... Judy Garland’s long, sad decline has become the stuff of showbiz cliché ... Yes, it’s upsetting to watch as the declining star attempts to drag herself on stage yet again ... but there is also something heroic about it ... Set in 1968, Garland... has a new fiancé in tow, a former discotheque manager ... She is reunited, too, with her gay MD and accompanist, played with wry wit and great tenderness by Hilton McRae, who, unlike her fiancé, loves her unconditionally ... Terry Johnson’s compelling production keeps switching between private life and public performance, while Bennett brilliantly captures Garland’s brittle wit ... The moments when she literally begs for pills and liquor are almost too painful to watch ... At once fragile and funny, tragic and tough, and rising to superb musical heights, Bennett’s performance is as dazzling as it is unforgettable."