The standing ovation that follows seems the most natural thing in the world as the entire audience automatically rise in unison, enthusiastically slapping hands together. Our Judy, Tracie Bennett, genuinely looks as drained as the character she’s been playing and we feel exhausted too.
End of the Rainbow follows Judy Garland’s Talk of the Town comeback tour in December 1968 when she tries to revive vaudeville and her failed Hollywood career. Despite initial success, five weeks of London concerts with ‘no booze, no pills’ and her fiance-manager making the rules proves too much for Judy and she’s soon off the wagon again.
Split into two distinct halves, the first act of End of the Rainbow is ingeniously hilarious whereas the second part will encourage more tears but this time of sorrow. Garland’s problem is she truly is a larger-than-life character – difficult, overbearing and exasperating with an exhaustingly big personality, she refuses to pay hotel bills, stomps her feet like a hysterical child and forgets rehearsals and song lyrics. Her cheek, audacity and the contrast of her potty-mouth with her divine warbling, is the source of much of the humour while her manic crash-burn personality prompts the heartache.
Garland has so many funny lines it’s difficult to know where to start. Her arrogance prompts plenty of laughs – in rehearsals she says: ‘I’ll skip this lyric – they’ll be applauding’. But many of her funniest lines are tinged with sadness: ‘I have swallowed and vomited more drugs than you can imagine… you could have plugged cables into me and I could have powered Manhattan.’
Her tumultuous sexually charged relationship with her younger fiance, club owner Mickey Deans, provokes much of the drama with a whole series of tearful rather colourful slagging matches. As the play progresses Mickey’s intentions become questionable and her old friend and pianist, Anthony, expresses concern over the speed of her latest marriage.
Emotionally draining lines tackling Judy’s debilitating drug addiction, lost childhood and split identity are cushioned between some genuinely hilarious moments, like Judy accidentally taking drugs to cure a Cocker Spaniel’s mange. Forced as a child from the age of 14 to take every pill imaginable to combat her long working hours, Garland jokes she could have ‘floated down the yellow brick road’.
As her story draws to an end, knowing the tragic waste of Garland’s life it’s impossible not to yearn for more so when the touchingly played Anthony is used to partly detract from her sad demise we’re grateful to award-winning director, Terry Johnson, for cutting us some slack. It’s hard not to recall and agree with the earlier premonitory line: ‘It’s a terrible thing to know what you’re capable of and never get there’.
Although Peter Quilter’s script is rammed with witty banter and dialogue, there are plenty of movingly performed Garland tracks for music lovers – from the upbeat When You’re Smiling to The Trolley Song and the strategically placed tearfully executed title track we’ve all been waiting for that takes on new meaning and significance.
Body bent double with a permanent swagger, Tracie Bennett hunched over totters and teeters, shuffling across the stage and it’s easy to see why she’s twice now won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Supporting Role. The range and energy she puts into this outstanding performance of a lifetime is surely worth a succession of awards and something it’s hard not to feel privileged to have witnessed. Unmatched by any previously seen live acting, Bennett’s tour de force performance is enough to nearly reduce even the frostiest personality to tears.
End of the Rainbow is playing until April 16, 2011 at:
Tel: 0870 060 6632