Review: Spirit of Judy Garland Alive in Through the Mill

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It’s a tough ask to find one performer who can take on the heavy mantle of performing Judy Garland, but to find three exceptional talents who can do just this, well, that’s what makes Through the Mill very special.

Weaving together three key stages in Judy’s life, this musical (complete with an impressive live band) examines the hurdles Judy had to persistently face in her life (both internal demons and external foes) but also celebrates her as a survivor – if only temporarily – and a woman who went on to fulfil her prodigious talent against almost overwhelming odds.

And all of this set to an impressive musical score that includes such classics as Get Happy, The Trolley Song, The Man That Got Away, and, of course, some song about a rainbow.

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The book is cleverly put together. We see Judy at three moments in her life – as a young girl (Lucy Penrose) bruisingly marshalled by a strict mother as she pushes hard at MGM to nab the role of Dorothy Gale, then on the cusp of her thirties (Belinda Wollaston) where her dependencies on pills and men are becoming increasingly obvious as she prepares for a string of performances at Palace Theatre, and then in her forties (Helen Sheals) during the ill-fated television show where, debts climbing and allies alienated, Judy battled to stay both relevant and sober.

Only these three sequences do not run consecutively. Instead they are blended and woven into each other, the walls between the three stories porous, the scenes blending effortlessly across the three periods, with each version of Judy acting as a forewarning or an echo to her other selves. Considering how hard this is to pull off, it is extremely well done.

But there is no doubt that it is the three central performances from the three Judys that will blow you away. These are three powerhouse performances. The vocals from the three women are impressive in not just their mimicry of Judy’s voice but also as vocals in themselves, but more than this (even more than this!) kudos to them for managing to successfully adopt so many of Judy’s tics and habits, such as the shakes, and the constant touching of herself and others.

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Direction comes from writer Ray Rackham and he’s done a pretty good job of getting that balance right between the high energy numbers and letting those moments of loss or tenderness linger long enough to ensure the emotional weight is felt. There are a couple of issues with some of the supporting characters not being fully fleshed out but this is a small gripe in what is a terrific show.

But a special mention must be made for the overall tone of this production. It’s so easy with Judy to fall into the well-trodden ground of portraying her as a victim, a high profile marker for the destruction that the Hollywood machine can inflict on its players. It’s not blind to the pills, the alcohol and the co-dependency, but it chooses to flip the coin and instead of focusing on these as the paths to her destruction, it frames this as a celebration of Judy’s strength, determination and immense talent.

A glorious musical celebration of the greatest of icons.

Southwark Playhouse, London to July 30, 2016

Tickets from £20.

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