Sometimes there is a particular thrill in seeing a performer who has consistently performed well through the years finally getting the moment to truly shine - it happened with Clarke Peters in PORGY AND BESS and now Tracie Bennett is receiving nightly standing ovations for recreating Judy Garland in Peter Quilter's END OF THE RAINBOW.
Although still best known from her stint in "Coronation Street" in the early 1980s, Tracie has for years been working away in theatres in the provinces and West End, in the process winning 2 Olivier Awards for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical out of 3 nominations. I suspect she will have to clear the mantelpiece for a few more and while there is no denying her achievement... Tracie, someone done rained on your Easter Parade.Sadly the play is annoying in the extreme - and the more I have dwelt on it, wanting to like it for the sake of Bennett's performance, the more I have wanted to kick it. Peter Quilter has, I presume, set out to write his own PIAF about Judy Garland's stay in London for 5 weeks over the new year of 1968/69 when she appeared at the Talk Of The Town but Mr. Quilter... you ain't no Pam Gems.
Quilter has been beavering away since 2001 on his subject when the first attempt LAST SONG OF THE NIGHTINGALE which starred Tracie Bennett as his un-named heroine came and went at the New End Theatre Hampstead. The play then popped up four years later in Australia with Caroline O'Connor in the lead who later reprised the role in Edinburgh.So here we are finally in the West End and the play does have the distinct whiff of something that has been toured to death just like the star it's depicting. It's hard to know where to start with this woeful script.
Particular moments where I ripped up the Trafalgar Studios carpet with my curled toes include when Hilton McRae's gay pianist tells Garland's overbearing husband-to-be that it will be the gays who will keep Judy alive long after she's dead - stressing the line so much one wonders if this is all Quilter wanted us to take from the show - and the obligatory scene where said gay pianist is briefly overcome with a heterosexual snogging fit.
Director Terry Johnson also needs a dry hard slap for the endless playing out of the consequences of Garland stealing pills from her pianist's bag which turn out to be his dog's mange pills, hours of business of Judy cocking her leg - not once but twice - then rolling on the floor to be tickled, barking, snuffling around the furniture - YES WE FUCKING GET IT!!!
There is no development of any of the three characters, no particular insights into the nature of fame or celebrity or any feeling that, as has been claimed by Liza Minnelli or Lorna Luft, even at her lowest ebb Judy was someone you just wanted to be around. Oh and don't get me started on William Dudley's idea to paint a carpet on the bare stage only for people to loudly clump all over it.
Hilton McRae as her diffident but caring pianist Anthony seems overwhelmed by Hurricaine Tracie and underplays laughlines to a worrying degree and Stephen Hagen is given no help in building the character of Mickey Deens into anything other than an over-bearing, joyless user. In a bizarre wordless moment at the end he moves towards Judy who shrinks away from him and he leaves... so this would be the same man she married a few months after these events took place?
But no, Quilter only allows the fictional Anthony to be the one who cares for Judy - and who of course delivers the obligatory "Judy Garland was found dead etc etc" verbal wikipedia obit at the end of the play. Where the evening takes off are in the moments when the action switches to the Talk Of the Town stage and Bennett is allowed to let rip into several Garland standards although there was a distinct whiff of "Tonight Matthew I will be..." about it - imagine my amusement to see she had in fact won a Celebrity Stars In their Eyes as Judy Garland. To be honest I also found it difficult to totally give myeslf over to the illusion as she looked more like Lucille Ball.
Capturing exactly Garland's soaring open-throated belt voice however, Tracie Bennett turned her songs into genuine showstoppers and took the roof off with an incredible version of THE MAN THAT GOT AWAY. It is typical of the botched thinking behind the production however that building to the obvious climax of OVER THE RAINBOW followed by her thoroughly deserved rapturous curtain call, Bennett suddenly launches into a coda of BY MYSELF which ruins the moment.To be honest in the duller moments of Quilter's play I was watching Tracie Bennett and thinking how much I would love to see her as a future Mama Rose in GYPSY.
One can only hope that she does not go the way of Lesley Mackie, the West End's last 'Judy' back in 1986. Yes she won a deserved Olivier Award for her performance - in an equally ho-hum piece it must be said - but all it got her was a supporting role in BRIGADOON and then she returned to her native Scotland never to grace the West End again.