BWW Review: THROUGH THE MILL, London Theatre Workshop, December 8 2015
From the vantage point of 2015, it's perhaps easy to think of Judy Garland's career trajectory as a kind of "child star deluxe": early success (well, early immortality as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, not just the greatest performance in cinema history by a child, but one of the greatest performances by an actor full stop) followed by highs and lows on and off the screen, in a life that would attracted the adjective "troubled" in today's media. There's the booze and the pills and the men and the divorces, but there's also the talent and that indefinable charisma that maintains her status as a true icon of popular culture some 46 years after her death.
Through the Mill (continuing at London Theatre Workshop until 19 December) tries to capture all that extraordinary tale by focusing on three moments in Judy's life, each "Judy" played by a different actress supported by an ensemble cast of musician-actors. The main framing device is backstage in the early 60s as her weekly CBS TV variety show struggles to find its format (and its audience). From there, we jump back in time to see Judy on her way to being cast as Dorothy, her dysfunctional father and ultra-ambitious mother pulling her one way and the other, while she swallows tablets to lose weight and work long days. We also meet Judy at 29, her Hollywood career faltering and her American concert tour not going as well as the earlier European venture. This Judy is at her peak as a singer, but is already feeling the effects of her self-destructive tendencies, effects that would only get worse.
The three Judies are sensational, capturing the mannerisms and looks of the icon with eerie accuracy. Their voices are also fantastic, obviously very close to Judy herself, but just magnificent anyway, singing classic numbers like "Zing, went the strings of my heart", "You made me love you" and, of course, "Over the rainbow".
More than that, each actress captures a key element of Judy's character. Lucy Penrose's Young Judy longs to be loved, but her self-esteem is crushed by a viciously cruel mother and a studio system that made few compromises with the need to make money. For Palace Judy, Belinda Wollaston contrasts the star of stage (voice, interpretation and presence utterly compelling) with the pill-popping serial husband-chaser off stage. Helen Sheals (the best singer of a very, very strong trio) shows the older Judy running away from debts, being outmanoeuvred by men in suits, but blazing with star quality, for all her issues.
Ultimately, and perhaps ironically, the main problem with this show is the same one that dogged Judy's CBS show half a century in the past. When "Judy" sings, she so consumes our attention that everything else pales in comparison. CBS audiences wanted more songs and less talk - and so did I. That said, the ticket price is justified by just one number, never mind the ten that you get, each one a showstopper.