Review: End of the Rainbow

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End of the Rainbow (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday October 8)

VERY occasionally when you go to the theatre you are privileged to witness a showstopping performance of such jewel-encrusted five star quality that shivers race up and down your spine and you know you would have killed more than once for your ticket.

Tracie Bennett’s performance as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow grants such an opportunity – a real tour de force in a production that slaps the emotions senseless then teases them back for more.

I saw the seeds of this piece sown back in 2003 at Greenwich when Bennett was playing a character called Martha Lewis in “Last Song of the Nightingale” – everyone came out remarking that the character must surely have been based on Judy Garland and we all thought how amazing the star was in the role of the celebrity diva struggling to hold her career and life together. Now Peter Quilter’s play has dared to name its inspiration – and Tracie Bennett is sensational.

The play imagines what might have happened in a room at the Dorchester when Garland played London’s Talk of the Town for five weeks in the year before her death. Aided superbly by Norman Bowman as her fifth husband to be Mickey Deans and Hilton McRae as her supportive pianist Anthony, full of dry wit and waspishness – itself an award-worthy performance – Tracie Bennett presents a superstar near the end of a life plagued by self doubt, addiction, and a desire to be needed and loved.

Such is the strength of this central performance that you quickly forget the fact that the story is a biographical dramatic cliché – you love this Judy, you care about her vulnerability, you laugh at her humour and playfulness, you are irritated by her self destruction, and you just cannot take your eyes off her even as the inevitable train wreck approaches.

And if the drama and star performances aren’t enough in this poignant and powerful Terry Johnson-directed gem, then there’s the stunning renditions of some of Judy’s greatest hits, from Somewhere Over the Rainbow to The Man That Got Away.

And as the audience rises as one to its feet to acclaim her incredible performance, Tracie Bennett skips on with a girlish grin to take her bow, not a sign showing of the monstrous character she has been playing for six months in the West End and in the sixth week of a national tour – a sign not just of a good actress, but of a great one, whose performance will surely go down in the annals of theatrical history.

David Guest