Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Theatre review: Through the Mill

Southwark Playhouse have developed a bit of a line in musicals with a big gay following in recent years, and now this theme gets a new twist at they put three Judy Garlands on stage at the same time. Ray Rackham's Through the Mill has three periods in the star's life overlap, the common thread being that each time she's trying to launch her career, once from nothing, and then with two different comeback attempts. Young Judy (Lucy Penrose, the most uncannily like the real Garland of the three,) is discovered by junior MGM producer Roger Edens (Tom Elliot Reade,) who convinces studio boss Louis B Mayer (Dot Cotton Don Cotter) to give her a chance. Mayer can't deny the power of her voice but doesn't really warm to her, and makes sure to leave notes around the studio where she can find them, telling the catering staff not to feed her because she's too fat for movies.

Between this and her pushy stage mother Ethel Gumm (Amanda Bailey,) who comes up with the regime of pills to keep her buzzing in front of the cameras and knock her out at night, Judy's all set to grow up completely fucked up.

Palace Judy (Belinda Wollaston) is at the height of her drug addiction and no film studio will touch her, but with the support of her manager and soon-to-be third husband Sid Luft (Harry Anton, so hot it was hard to take my eyes off him,) is about to open a solo show on Broadway. And after some more wilderness years, now separated from Luft and with mounting - and in some case mysterious - debts, CBS Judy (Helen Sheals) is trying to launch her own weekly TV variety show, fighting constant interference from network executive Hunt Stromberg Jr (Rob Carter.)

Although I mentioned Garland's gay icon status at the start (something the play acknowledges by showing Roger as the first of the gay men to fall for her mixture of power and vulnerability,) she's not someone I'd consider myself a huge fan of, so I wasn't sure how I'd get on with this. But Rackham (who also directs) has come up with a gentle but absorbing (if overlong) biographical play interspersed with some of the singer's best-known numbers, carefully choosing which version of Judy will sing which song - or whether she'll duet with herself across the decades.

CBS Judy is humanised by the inclusion of her new dresser, Miss Kramer (Carmella Brown,) who finds a friend in the legend, but it's not strictly necessary as the main flaw of Through the Mill is that it borders too much on hagiography: We hear a lot about Judy's drug problems and difficulty to work with but only Palace Judy really demonstrates any of that, and I could have done with seeing a bit more of the uncomfortable presence that made viewers turn off CBS Judy's show - and a bit more grittiness in general. The common problem of sound balance also rears its head again, with the strong voices of the three leads only really getting their due in about half the songs, the rest drowning them out with the actor-musicians' instruments. Not, perhaps, the most illuminating insight into Garland's life but an entertaining and sometimes moving one nonetheless.

Through the Mill by Ray Rackham is booking until the 30th of July at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Darren Bell.

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