by Peter Callaghan
Watching writer and director Ray Packham’s excellent production of Judy! which transferred from Southwark Playhouse after debuting at London Theatre Workshop under the title Through The Mill, a lyric from Jimmy Webb’s hit song Witchita Lineman springs to mind: “I need you more than want you”. Some people want to perform; others need to. And for artists such as Judy Garland who belong in the latter camp, when the lights dim and the applause fades and they are left alone with their thoughts, then to quote from one of her more memorable torch songs: “the night is bitter”.
With her soulful singing voice, excellent comic timing, effortless dance moves and Oscar-nominated acting skills, it is universally agreed that there was only one Judy Garland. But in Packham’s production we get three. First, Young Judy (Lucy Penrose) who is told by her domineering mother Ethel Gumm (Amanda Bailey) that “fat little girls” like her “don’t make movie pictures” therefore she should lose weight and bandage her breasts; and forced by the hotshot Hollywood producer Louis B. Mayer (Don Cotter) to embark on an exhausting fifteen city tour over two weeks in order to pip Shirley Temple for the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
Then there is Palace Judy (Belinda Wollaston), the second wife of bar brawler-turned-movie mogul Sid Luft (Harry Anton) who at the age of 29 is popping pills and sinking spirits like there’s no tomorrow in order to defy the odds and make the mother of all comebacks with a record 19-week stint at the Palace Theatre in New York. “I only have to go to the bathroom”, she says sarcastically, “and I’m having a comeback.” Stinging criticism which defies the relentless work ethic instilled in her by her vaudevillian parents Ethel and Frank Gumm (Joe Shefer). “Lunch for breakfast, dinner for lunch and a show for dinner,” she says in defence of her unconventional time-keeping. “I start late and finish later.” End of.
Followed by CBS Judy (Helen Sheals), a self-proclaimed “living fucking legend” whose transition from stage to television is hampered by tax investigations, artistic differences with her ratings-obsessed producer Hunt Stromberg Jr. (Christopher Dickins) and blackmail in the form of a $50,000 demand for naked pictures which purport to show her getting her “stomach pumped”. If life is just a bowl of cherries, as the three Judys sing at the top of the show, then they are pips from a once-bountiful crop which have been spit out and crushed by those after her MGM: “My Goddam Money!”
Writer and director Ray Packham deserves immense credit for avoiding the pitfalls which have rendered many a Garland biopic camp, predictable and tragic. The three strands of her life are interwoven in a non-linear fashion which provides a kaleidoscopic glimpse into her psyche rather than a simple cradle to grave chronology. The songs are used to drive the plot and offer a deeper insight into her state of mind rather than showcase her greatest hits. The cast of actor-musicians led by musical director Simon Holt are excellent. And the three lead performers are, without exception, exceptional.
Lucy Penrose as Young Judy captures her naive vulnerability to a tee and when she belts, boy, she’s up there with Merman; Belinda Wollaston as Palace Judy has the more difficult task of playing the legend at the height of her neurosis, but pulls it off and then some particularly during the Palace medley; and though it’s unfair to single out any of the lead actresses, Helen Sheals as CBS Judy comes the closest to nailing her vocal and physical mannerisms, not to mention her wicked sense of humour. “We’ve been married 11 years and you’ve not once given me 60 seconds,” says Luft. To which Judy replies, before raising an eyebrow, “Yes, I could say the same to you.”
“Whatever the weather,” says one of the CBS “apprentice snakes”, “Judy just wants to be loved.” She was, is and (judging by the standing ovation after the penultimate performance of this run) forever will be. Sure, she had her troubles with booze and pills and her lousy luck with men (gay, taken or bad seem to be her types). But who doesn’t? And in the words of the late, great Elaine Stritch who in her one-woman show At Liberty said she was one of the few celebrities to out drink her: “Well, there’s a little bit of Judy Garland in all of us.”