Judy Garland is an extremely complex and intricate character, which is echoed wonderfully by Ray Rackham’s new play, Through The Mill. Playing at the London Theatre Workshop above the Eel Brook Pub in Fulham, we witness three important timelines of her life, carefully interwoven with her famous songs such as ‘The Trolley Song’, ‘Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries’, ‘Get Happy’ and of course ‘Over The Rainbow.’
For someone who has notions of Judy explicitly from The Wizard Of Oz, this is a keen biography and gives a fair crack at exploring the enigma she was. Young Judy (Lucy Penrose) has a twinkle in her eye and a glorious voice; Palace Judy (Belinda Wollaston) is feisty and witty, with a harrowing need for comfort and love; while CBS Judy (Helen Sheals) is gloriously uncomfortable to watch, together and falling apart all at the same time. All three leading ladies are stand-outs for me: with each of their own endearing qualities they create individual Judys, giving us an interesting insight into her development as a person. Their vocals are exquisite and their impersonations of her unique voice are very thorough and consistent throughout the piece, but also showcase three individuals with outstanding vocal technique.
I guess the complexity comes from seeing imitations of a person we have seen, in recordings; that Judy is someone we think we all know, but she is actually being propelled through life by other people’s stories. I became fascinated with Judy as a character and it was more interesting to see how people still seem to know very little about her and how she acted, because she will always be preserved through the memories of others and the voice recordings we have. In this sense the action occurs around her and out of her.
The conflict is all very rapid, and at some point during the second half this grated on me. Judy continues to argue with her mother, Judy continues to argue with her husband, Judy continues to argue with her producer – and so on and so forth. The writing doesn’t leave much to the imagination, telling us her story at points instead of illustrating it, and I can read her biography on the internet. I wanted to see fully-developed characters and be intrigued why they are acting that way. Instead I was greeted informatively with actors reading about her aloud, although the direction (by Max Reynolds) does well to disguise this. The movement (by Chris Whittaker) included in her songs is patchy and awkward, which makes those parts of light relief not so fabulous.
However, there is strength in the energetic acting and glittering MGM score, which is played on stage by actor-musicians – a lovely hint at what fringe musical theatre can do. The timely arrangements (by Simon Holt and Peter Dodsworth) create a magical environment and immerse the audience fully in the glory of the age of vaudeville.
There is also some extremely strong supporting work, namely by Rob Carter, who plays producer Hunt Stromberg Jr. and is a thorough actor. Carter’s strength and technical ability are outstanding, driving the scenes forward with demand and genuine need. Carmella Brown, as Judy’s dresser Judith Kramer, shows some touching moments and is a promising young actress. Harry Anton (as Judy’s husband Sid Luft) is a fabulous casting choice, with such a thuggish masculinity I continued to wonder why he cared so much about her whilst she continually berated him.
As Stromberg’s character says of Judy, “there’s not enough love in the world”, and we learn that she was always pushing and pulling with those near to her. With no less than five husbands, she continually yearned for someone close but was scared that they were using her. The play rounds off with a truly reverent ending that is still extremely relevant, illustrating something about celebrity culture and our supposed ownership of those that give themselves over to the world of show business. Just like everyone else, celebrities look for acceptance and struggle to find it continually within themselves; they are pushed and prodded and created by our illusions and projections of them.
Overall this is a promising show, with strong commitment from the actors throughout that garnered a welcoming response from the audience. I would be intrigued to see the writing developed further and have no doubt it could be picked up for a larger venue.
Through The Mill is playing at the London Theatre Workshop until 19 December. For more information and tickets, see the London Theatre Workshop website.