End of the Rainbow, Aylesbury Waterside ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub.

There is little doubt that Judy Garland was one of the 20th Century’s most engaging performers – or that the somewhat erratic performance style, particularly late in life, was both fuelled by, and a result of, the drug regime to which she was addicted.

Starting from her early days in Hollywood, where studios would routinely feed amphetamines to their stars to give them stamina while suppressing their appetite, Garland struggled with the effects of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes all her life. Peter Quilter’s play End of the Rainbow, a success in both the West End and Broadway with Tracie Bennett as Garland, looks at the last years of the performer’s life, as she struggles through a run of cabarets at London’s legendary Talk of the Town while her new manager and fiancé tries to keep her sober.

That this touring production succeeds so well is down predominantly to Lisa Maxwell as Judy. Not a performer previously known for either impersonation or singing, Maxwell demonstrates a remarkable aptitude for both. Visual and vocal mannerisms provide an immediate recognition factor, painting Garland as a truly damaged woman who is always on the verge of being a monster to those around her while never having really grown up.

It is when Garland starts to sing, though, that Maxwell truly blossoms. The touring set’s transformation from hotel suite to nightclub stage is far less impressive than the West End original, but Maxwell’s performance soon puts such thoughts to one side. Garland’s distinctive vocal approach to songs, and the cracks in her voice that emerged after decades of substance abuse, are captured and recreated in all their captivating glory. For people who know Maxwell only as a detective in The Bill or an opinionated panellist on Loose Women, here is a reminder that she is a supremely talented actress and singer.

Alongside her, Gary Wilmot’s own performance is a similarly successful play against type. Long known as one of Britain’s hardest working and consummate musical theatre performers, here he gives an engaging character performance as Garland’s accompanist, Anthony Chapman. While Quilter’s script does at times seek to give Chapman a role as a proxy for all homosexual men (with the assumption that all “friends of Dorothy” regarded Garland as one of theirs) for the most part it is a subtle portrayal of a good man caught in an impossible situation, and struggling to help a woman who never had enough people looking out for her. Wilmot is quiet, stoic, and often funny as the role demands, the perfect foil to Maxwell’s waspish Garland.

Alongside these two performances, Sam Attwater’s portrayal as Mickey Deans, Garland’s toyboy fiancé and manager, struggles to make much of an impression at all, despite his character being the closest the play comes to having a physical villain to accompany Garland’s own demons. But he is only ever really a supporting character to Maxwell as Judy Garland, and it is that central performance which captivates throughout and makes for a supremely enjoyable piece of theatre.