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Through the Mill (Southwark Playhouse)

Ray Rackham's new musical looks at three pivotal moments in the life of Judy Garland

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

How does any one actress do justice to Judy Garland? In Ray Rackham's new musical, they don't have to: there are three Judy's for different sections of her troubled life. The smart thing about Through the Mill, however, is that rather than plod along chronologically, all three Judy's exist concurrently, the action snapping between them. They even pass the baton mid-song, often to poignant effect.

This needs all three actresses to be up to it, and they are. First there's ‘CBS Judy', the late-career star struggling to connect with the audience in her TV variety show, played by Helen Sheals. She looks not a lot like the actress, but manages to convey the needy insecurity beneath an imperious and indomitable diva façade. Sheals belts out the big numbers, stretches her vowels so long they could reach all the way to the Emerald City, and delights the audience with suitably acid one-liners.

Working backwards, Belinda Wollaston plays ‘Palace Judy', when the fading star is preparing for one of many come-backs: a vaudeville show at Broadway's Palace Theatre in 1951. She's the most visibly anguished of the three, raddled with pills and drink, but also gets some seriously steamy scenes with Garland's manager and third husband Sid Luft (played by Harry Anton with a smouldering intensity; sadly, his repeat visits to the older Judy do not age well). Her final Palace performance raises the roof, as it ought.

Finally, recent graduate Lucy Penrose plays 'young Judy', a piece of dream casting. From her turned-up, wrinkling nose and fragile eyes to the elegant swoop and twitchy snap of her gestures to the voice of tremulous nerves and glossily hard sustained notes, she looks, moves and sounds like, well, Dorothy. It's wizard.

This is, perhaps, the saddest section of all in a play that's pretty sympathetic to its leading lady. We see Judy put on diet pills at 14, bullied by producers as the ugly duckling of the MGM ‘family', forced to put plugs up her nose to make her prettier. Penrose makes all this poignant, but when that famously mature-beyond-her-years voice escapes, there's a shiver of awe too. Forgive me for saying it, but a star is born.

Elsewhere, the quality isn't always sustained; some smaller parts feel over-acted as if to compensate for their slightness. Judy's mother may have been a nightmare, but Amanda Bailey's gorgon stretches credulity. The trauma of Judy's father's interest in young boys, and stories of failed earlier marriages, are somehow both over-expositional and underdeveloped. But Carmella Brown is sweet in the thankless part of Judy's dresser, a naïf who grows in confidence under Judy's ferocious eye.

Some of the angst-ridden dialogue drops into cliché, and there's too much stage time given to CBS Judy's circular arguments with studio bosses. But largely, Rackham's script goes at a good lick, slipping seamlessly between their stories. A seven-piece band under Simon Holt's musical direction manage to create a much fuller swinging sound than you'd expect, suiting both the small space and the period; it's doubly impressive given how many musicians also play minor parts. They perch around a rackety, backstage set, which forms a suitable backdrop for all three strands.

Through the Mill is a thoroughly enjoyable, if not especially daring, take on the jukebox musical: the highs and lows are plotted just so and the gorgeous songs sweep you along whenever things lag. By focusing on triumph-over-adversity moments in Judy's life, plundering the gold-plated back catalogue and tapping into her camp potential, her story proves ripe for the musical treatment.

Through the Mill runs at Southwark Playhouse until 13 July.