Saturday, 9 July 2016

Review Through The Mill

Through The Mill
by Ray Rackham

Judy, Judy, Judy

Judy Garland's short but intense life and enormous singing talent spanned the age of vaudeville through radio and the movies to the advent of television for the masses. Interestingly Ray Rackham's Through The Mill is not a straightforward biography but a considered collage filtering her life through the changes in the entertainment world.

It's a tough ask to bring Judy's powerful and unique contralto voice to the stage. But having three Judys at different periods of her life, before and after the dependence on prescription drugs and drink had taken its toll, offers a certain leeway.

This also is a clever, seamless way of presenting, without explanation, a subtle but visceral visual and vocal symbolism for the three sister group from whence Garland emerged. 

Yet, while there are  resonant flashpoints where her life is distilled from several directions, there are also some dodgy American accents, along with clunky, too explicit wearing of knowledge on the play's sleeve and set pieces ending in some world weary witticisms..

Nevertheless there's a lot to enjoy and admire with a subject which can always make capital out of a ready-made  audience. There are some humdinger snippets of Garland songs chosen carefully as a shorthand to reflect on and drive the plot. 

Picking up on only the slightest but pointed references to politics, we even came to realise Judy's successful career coincided with many years of Democratic Party government in the USA (her life came to an end early in the Richard Nixon Republican administration).

The play also deliberately does not seek to dramatize Judy's well-known end but rather her instinct for survival. Beginning with the later life of the older Judy (Helen Sheals) , beset by financial, legal, addiction and health problems, harassed by the courts, lawyers, accountants and the Internal Revenue Service, Judy takes her first steps into ratings-driven television in the early 1960s. 

A decade earlier, fired from MGM, Judy (Belinda Wollaston)  tours with Sid Luft ending up at the refurbished vaudeville venue The Palace in New York, But at every turn, there is always the talented but insecure plump young girl, Judy Garland (outstanding Lucy Penrose), originally Frances Gumm,

The play is fluidly directed by Rackham on a two-storey set (designer Justin Williams) with the cast doubling as musicians and melting away into the background while remaining on stage. Her mother and father (Amanda Bailey and Joe Shefer), her dresser (Carmella Brown), her husband cum manager Sid Luft (Harry Anton), movie mogul Louis B Mayer (Don Cotter), producers George Schlatter (Perry Meadowcroft) and Norman Jewison (Chris McGuigan),  musical arranger Roger Edens (Tom Elliot Reade) and TV executive Hunt Stromberg (the excellent Rob Carter) all slot into the jigsaw of Garland's life .

There's a certain low budget rawness to the backdrop and costumes at times, but this is a raw if predictable tale. We could have done  with more of the ambiguity, visual questioning and undercutting of the usual story and its stereotypes, suggested in the second act. For example in the innovative use of make up (Leanne Steedman) and lighting (Jack Weir), with the banishment of Judy's mother Ethel from her life.  

This is a show that needs more polish and honing. Yet we're being picky because we feel it is already a cut above many biographical celebrity plays and  has the potential to hit all the right notes. Especially if it pursues more vigorously the interrogation, already present but rather half-heartedly, of the literary stereotypes, imposed on the biographies of many a flesh and blood diva - Monroe and Piaf,  as well as Garland. So for a play which certainly has the potential to go on singing, an amber/green light.

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