A star is well and truly reborn at Trafalgar Studios where Tracie Bennett brings to vivid last-gasp-of-life Judy Garland in Peter Quilter’s new comedy-drama End of the Rainbow. Set in the months before she died in Chelsea of an accidental overdose at the age of 47, Judy has arrived in London for another comeback attempt via a five-week season at the Talk of the Town, with her young husband-to-be and newly appointed manager Mickey Deans (Stephen Hagan) and reverent gay pianist Anthony (Hilton McRae) in tow.

Over the days of the play, high hopes turn to high drama as Judy’s personal demons rear their ugly heads, she becomes paralysed by stage fright and incapable of functioning without her “grown-up candy”, a potent mix of liquor and pills. And the two men currently in her life, of the many who “tend not to stay around ... they go when I’m not looking”, 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, even if on occasion that abundance can threaten to overwhelm. There’s no danger of that here. 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 – or, in any case, one that will be very difficult to eclipse. 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.

For all the terror though, these musical interludes in Terry Johnson’s slick production also afford Bennett an opportunity to demonstrate her own Garland-like vocal power, nowhere more so than in the closing moments, after the story and Garland’s life have reached their inevitable end, when she delivers a spine-tingling rendition of “Over the Rainbow”. A fitting tribute to two extraordinary talents that wins a richly deserved standing ovation.

- Terri Paddock


NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from February 2010 and this production’s original run in Northampton.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better…

Less than a year since a triumphant Alan Ayckbourn season, and just four months on from the huge critical acclaim surrounding the Young America season – including a much-deserved transfer to the National – the Royal & Derngate team have blown all rational measures off the scale.

There are scarcely enough superlatives to lavish upon this sensational piece of theatre. It should be enough to say it’s got awards written all over it, but it merits so much more than that.

Peter Quilter’s drama is an extraordinary rollercoaster ride of emotion, charting the background to the final London concerts of the legendary Judy Garland in January 1969. Within six months she would be dead, and her drug-addled, drink-fuelled body was wrecked at the age of just 47.

Quilter’s magnificently crafted work weaves together high comedy and exhausting drama almost by turns, with some of Garland’s best-loved songs injecting yet more emotion into an already pumped up evening.

In the hands of veteran director Terry Johnson, this meticulously researched and beautifully structured piece becomes a choreographed dream, with not a foot, a note or a look out of place.

With just four actors to work with, Johnson keeps the balls juggling between belly laughs and breathtaking drama, and each of the four plays a vital part.

Robin Browne doubles up for some small but beautifully played roles, while Stephen Hagan shows maturity beyond his years as Garland’s fiancé Mickey Deans, and Hilton McRae is perfectly judged as her gay Scottish accompanist Anthony, who comes to represent the kind of unconditional love she has spent a lifetime searching for.

But a show as acutely, sharply biographical as this depends to a huge extent on its star, and in Tracie Bennett, it is not disappointed. It’s a performance of astonishing bravery, supreme talent and bewildering accuracy, but it’s much more than an impersonation. The voice is uncanny, the gestures spot-on, but the depth of emotion that Bennett invests in what must have been the most confused – and confusing – of superstars is simply inspired.

Supported by a fabulous live on-stage band, and on a stunning hotel room set designed by William Dudley, Bennett’s Judy is a jaw-dropping masterpiece of a performance in a stunning production that raises the bar, even by Royal & Derngate’s increasingly impressive standards.

The show unquestionably belongs in the West End, and if it transfers – as expected – then the national Best Actress awards are a shoo-in.

- MICHAEL DAVIES