Monday, December 7, 2015

'Through the Mill' at the London Theatre Workshop, 3rd December 2015

My mental image of Judy Garland is inextricably bound up in The Wizard of Oz. Everything about the film drips with iconic imagery, from the costumes to the songs to the gosh-gee-whillikers goodheartedness of Garland's Dorothy Gale. Sure I've seen Babes in ArmsA Star is Born and Meet Me in St Louis, but mention Garland's name and I'll soon be humming Over the Rainbow.

So it's a shock to be first introduced to Through the Mill's Garland: a cynical, drug-raddled egomaniac who drunkenly bumbles around emitting a forty-a-day throaty rasp. This is Judy Garland on the rocks: pursued by creditors, having worked through a couple of husbands, addicted to painkillers and hiding her somewhat depleted talent behind bluff and sharp-tongued retorts.

This is 'CBS Judy' (Helen Sheals), circa 1963. We're backstage at the recording of The Judy Garland Show, a hodge-podge variety affair in a perpetual state of retooling. The crew warn a fresh-faced dresser about Garland's titanic ego and eggshell-thin skin - a Gorgon-like description that she more than lives up to. Two and a half hours in her presence would be an assault on anyone's patience, so it's with no small relief that quickly flashback to two slightly less miserable Garland incarnations. 

'Young Judy' (Lucy Penrose) follows her beginnings at MGM as she's primped, prodded and berated into movie-star shape by a tyrannical mother and pushy studio heads. Don't get me wrong, Young Judy is still basically miserable, but there's a flame of hope inside her that's yet to be snuffed out.

By the time we get to 'Palace Judy' (Belinda Wollaston) a bucket of ice-cold water has firmly extinguished that flame. At just 29, this Garland feels over the hill: riddled with nerves over her talent and, after two failed marriages, desperate for something dependable in her life. She finds this in ex-boxer, B-movie impresario and future husband Sid Luft (Harry Anton), who fucks a bit of self-confidence back into her.

Judging by the rapturous hoots of approval and foot-stomping applause that greets even the duff jokes, the audience for Through the Mill is, to be charitable, perhaps a little uncritical in their response to the show. I'm instinctively wary of musical biopics - generally finding them a hodge-podge of cliches and performances that are more feats of mimicry than dramatically complete.

Through the Mill sidesteps most of that, working from a solid bedrock of Ray Rackham's clever writing. Here, the three eras of Garland are broadly mapped onto the classic feminine trinity of maiden/mother/crone, transforming biopic into a commentary on how women in the entertainment industry are chewed up and spat out by the men around them. The show's best moments come when interrogating this open-sexism - the shaming and heaped upon pressure as relevant in the 1930s as it is now.

That said, there's still a bunch of iffily written luvvie backstage drama - latter period Garland strongly reminiscent a bitchy drag queen, dishing out groan-worthy put downs. It's here that the show drags on - spending entirely too much time on divining the precise flaws of her abortive chat show. This high-profile failure might be of interest to devoted Garland fans, but the lengthy scenes of discussing their Nielsen ratings in relation to Bonanza, or the particulars of Garland's on-camera interview technique had me checking my watch and shifting my increasingly numbed ass in my seat.

At its worst the dialogue inches into clunking heavy obviousness, the absolute nadir being when Garland says goodbye to President Kennedy with a cheery "Have a wonderful time in Dallas Mr President!".  Also a bit tiresome is the fact that the latter two Judys are engaged in one long argument with her promoter and crew - the constant bickering draining away enthusiasm.

Fortunately the songs supply some much needed energy. Though they're infrequent (ten over the course of the show), they're staged and performed with vigour and charm. Each era of Judy has a particular personality that shines through in their numbers - yet common to all is an open emotional sincerity. Best of all are the numbers in which multiple Judys duet with each other across the years. There's affecting pathos in watching time-shifted Judys interact - as if we're seeing her memories play out in real-time.

Through the Mill runs on affection for Judy Garland, assuming its audience arrives pre-fascinated. I'm not, and the show didn't convince me that I should be. Still, the songs were good, it's a technically competent piece of theatre and (save for a couple of wandering accents) performatively impressive. But playing to the fans results in a rather safe, uncritical production - I'd have liked something with a bit more bite.


Through the Mill is at the London Theatre Workshop until 19th December. Tickets here.

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