The independent London newspaper

Review: Judy!, at Arts Theatre

09 June, 2017 — By Howard Loxton

Judy! is played by three actors. Photo: Lara Genovese

JUDY! – Garland, of course, for she was one of those iconic artists who doesn’t need another name.

Ray Rackham’s play, first staged as Through the Mill at Southwark Playhouse, is threaded through with the great numbers that will always be hers.

This isn’t chronological biography or a complete one. It’s a study of Garland and her problems that begins in 1961, with CBS trying to remould her for television, then switches back to her 1935 audition for Louis B Mayer and interweaves scenes from 1951 when, her MGM contract gone but fresh from European triumphs, she anxiously plays Broadway’s Palace Theatre.

Lucy Penrose is young Judy, signed by MGM but told she is fat and unattractive. Supportive dad (Joe Shefer) dies just when she needs him; pushy mum (Amanda Bailey) goes along with the studio’s pills, beginning a pattern of addiction. Belinda Wollaston is Judy mid-career, with manager/third husband Sid Luft (Harry Anton) at her side in a volatile relationship, beautifully captured. Helen Sheals is CBS Judy, a diva being told her TV audience doesn’t like her.

These are three remarkable performances backed by a strong company of musician-actors.

Each Judy stays in her time zone but all three will often share a number. Though they don’t set out to imitate Judy, some numbers do sound amazingly like her and all echo her spirit and vitality. The proscenium staging turns them more noticeably into performance numbers than in the earlier stagings and they are delivered with powerful emotion and theatrical panache.

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