End of the Rainbow (review)

Tracie Bennett as Judy in End of the Rainbow
Tracie Bennett as Judy in End of the Rainbow
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EACH season our local rep theatres put together a programme that they hope will be well received by the public. Often they expect no more of a production than good box office receipts and welcome reviews from both audiences and the critics.

Occasionally they hit gold with a piece that outgrows its original brief beyond all expectations.

In February of last year End of The Rainbow opened at the Royal & Derngate to standing ovations from the hard-to-please press and sell-out audiences. It was impossible to think that the electrifying performance of former Corrie star Tracie Bennett as fading icon Judy Garland in the last weeks of her troubled life would serve out its time at the Northants venue and quietly disappear.

Just like the larger-than-life Hollywood diva Rainbow wasn’t about to skulk off into the wings at the end of its run. It eventually went on to take the West End by storm and this week came back to its spiritual home before embarking on a national tour and a place on Broadway. The dame is going home.

On Tuesday Bennett blasted away the cobwebs on the Royal stage with a triumphant return but it was fascinating to see how the star’s performance has altered over the ensuing 18 months.

Judy Garland never really existed. She started life as Frances Gumm of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and, at the age of just two, was put to work by her parents who were soon shovelling pills down the throat of their little goldmine to ensure she remained bright and sparkly.

For the rest of her life Judy fought a losing battle with drugs, drink and men. Utterly dependent on all three she ended her days with a toyboy husband (number five) and a pill bottle after completing a succession of controversial and not entirely successful cabaret dates in London.

Peter Quilter’s absorbing play follows her struggle to beat her demons and perform at The Talk of The Town.

As ever Tracie Bennett is mesmerising as Garland although her character appears to have grown even more monstrous since its first outing at the Royal. Perhaps the actress is now so comfortable in the role that little Dorothy has consumed her. At times she almost produced a grotesque caricature of the showbiz legend.

The exuberance of Bennett is matched, as before, by the splendidly understated performance of Hilton McRae as gay piano player, Anthony, who became the star’s confidante during her London stay. While Judy screams and rages his quiet authority is refreshing.

At times the stage is awash with emotion. Either Judy is grandstanding and attention seeking, or she’s rowing with her then fiancée and manager, Mickey Deans (West End star Norman Bowman broody and glowering to perfection) or she’s wringing the poignancy out of a song or moment.

The long-awaited Over The Rainbow is performed and brings a lump to everyone’s throats. It really doesn’t get any better than this. Catch it if you can. On at the Royal & Derngate until tomorrow and then touring.

ANNE COX