Through the Mill, Southwark Playhouse, London ★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

It is 1963. Legendary performer Judy Garland has signed with TV station CBS to host a weekly variety series, a contract which will help pay off the debts she already faces, but which are growing thanks to embezzlement by her agents.

It is 1935. Louis B Mayer has signed a young Frances ‘Baby’ Gumm, now renamed Judy Garland by her mother, to the MGM studio system. Despite her phenomenal voice, the studio system obsesses with her personal image, letting her believe that she is fat and hunchbacked, while pumping her full of amphetamines so that she can keep with the frenetic schedule and barbiturates so that she can sleep.

It is 1951. After parting company with MGM and a four-month tour of the UK, Garland is about to start a 19-week run of shows at Broadway’s Palace Theatre. But the addiction and self-doubt seeded in her as a child star have taken their toll, and it is doubtful whether she can pull it together in time for the first performance.

Although she was only on this Earth for less than five decades, there was enough incident in Judy Garland’s life to form the basis of innumerable plays and musicals. Any one of the time periods above would have sufficient material for a full-length production in their own right.

Instead, writer/director Ray Rackham fuses all three together in Through the Mill, bringing a sense of depressingly crushing inevitability to Garland’s later years by having them play out directly alongside the seeds of her personal problems.

Transferring to the Southwark Playhouse from the London Theatre Workshop, Johnson Williams’ set design is an archetypal backstage area, tripling up as it does for a movie studio, Broadway theatre and TV sound stage. The effect is amplified by the actor-musicians who play Simon Holt’s beautiful arrangements of numerous Garland classics being onstage throughout, reading newspapers or playing cards when not ‘on’.

And then Judy comes on. Or rather, Judies: three actresses play Judy at each of these critical periods in her life, and each brings out particular facets of Garland’s complex character.

The lion’s share of such performances goes to Helen Sheals as the older Judy, and she is a dead ringer for the star both visually and in song. It is a portrait of a broken woman who is only able to mend herself while performing, who is struggling with the world of television both on screen and off. And yet there is that sense of magic throughout, regardless of how much alcohol or how many pills have been popped.

The blossoming of Garland’s young dresser, Judith (a charming performance by Carmella Brown) is a personification of the effect that Judy’s stardom had, regardless of what was going on around her. And Sheals is exemplary in her singing: whether in solo, duet or trio with the other Judies, Sheals carries herself just as Garland did.

Garland’s second husband, her onetime manager Sid Luft, is the only character besides Garland herself to be portrayed in the multiple timelines.

In 1951, he is persuading his performer back onstage, picking her up every time she puts herself down, trying to keep her clean, even as she pulls another bottle of pills out from its hiding place.

By 1963, the couple is now on the brink of divorce, but he is still looking out for her, auditing her accounts and trying to expose the shady practices of her agents that are financially crippling her.

Harry Anton’s Luft is at his best as the younger incarnation of his character, but throughout comes across as one of the few men in Garland’s life who she could rely upon. The real life Luft was a far more complex character, to be sure, but the version presented here balances nicely with the TV staff who feign love towards their talent even as they, like Mayer, manipulate Garland for their own business needs.

What helps Anton’s performance is playing against Belinda Wollaston’s nervy 1950s Judy. Of the trio, Wollaston is the least visually like Garland, and also has to portray the character from a period where she was onstage and so there is no visual record matching her film and TV eras.

But she is able to portray a Garland who could still deliver when the spotlight hit, with numbers such as ‘Get Happy’ and ’Rockabye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody’ proving delightful. Her chemistry with Anton’s Luft, most notably as Sheals’ older Judy sings a sultry ‘The Man That Got Away’, bring heft to the slightest of the three time eras.

But all this fades when compared to the electrifying performance by Lucy Penrose as the young Judy. Portraying the character in her teenage years, when she had the “puppy fat” the studio heads were obsessed with losing but had a belt that most performers could never hope to accomplish, Penrose is spot on throughout.

One of the most charming things about the young Garland was how mature her singing voice was while her persona was so charming and childlike, and Penrose captures that essence so well. Hers is the performance of the evening, if not of the whole London Fringe this year.

There are some pacing issues in Act I, where there are several overlong scenes of nothing but talking – necessary for expositional purposes perhaps, but which does nothing to highlight either Garland or the three women who so charmingly embody her here. By the end of Act I things have tightened up considerably, and Act II balances singing and dialogue to a much more effective degree.

By the time all three women playing Judy join together for the first time for the final number – what else but ‘Over the Rainbow’ – Rackham and his team have provided an effective and compelling portrait of a woman who captivated the world and continues to do so today.

There have been other shows about Garland, and doubtless there will be others to come. But future portrayals of Judy Garland will now find themselves compared to Through the Mill, and will have to work hard to match its standard.

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