Southwark Playhouse, London
Written and directed by Ray Rackham
Frank Sinatra famously said, “The rest of us will be forgotten – Never Judy.” This is a quote that has lasted the test of time and Through the Mill gives but a handful of the many examples as to why this remains as true today, as it was then.
Starting its life at The London theatre Workshop back in 2014, Through the Mill reveals an untold chapter in the life of Judy Garland, delving deeper into her personal life than ever before. It explores her neglected and practically non-existent childhood, her many failed relationships and romantic excursions in her late 20’s and the struggles she faced in her adult life with money, drugs, alcohol and thin stretched fame – all whilst desperately trying to get a TV show off the ground, despite the constant negative public reactions and her creative team changing every two weeks. The story portrayed is hilarious, touching, shocking and creates a whole new impression of the child star.
The first thing to note is how well the production has been cast. The three lead actresses who play Judy at the three pivotal stages in her life, CBS Judy (Helen Sheals), Palace Judy (Belinda Wollaston) and Young Judy (Lucy Penrose) are diverse and expertly show different sides of the damaged actress.
A basic set from Johnson Williams lends itself well to the story’s practicality. The constant weaving in and out of time lines cries out for a flexible and malleable set that can be a sound studio one moment, or a touring train or cabaret stage the next. The use of actor musicians however is a distraction. Having some of the actors double as the sound studio band or Garland’s orchestra may be clever and economic, however it takes away from some characters’ performances.
Sheals portrayal of Garland in her older years, is the first version of Judy we are given and her performance is really something. She captures Garland in her entirety from her distinctive voice to her very specific physical movements on stage whilst performing. Sheals’ juxtaposition of vulnerability and strength in different moments has one on her side throughout, regardless of whether or not her actions are childish or selfish - Specifically her performance of The Man That Got Away, is phenomenal and a real show stopping moment. Likewise, Wollaston is equally as moving, showing the actress during her developing romance with manager Sid Luft (Harry Anton) who she went on to marry. There is a particularly intimate moment on stage between Wallaston and Anton, where despite the heat and passion of the occasion, every movement is made as though there is an audience watching, giving us a look into the psyche of Garland – That no part of her every day could be acted out without her being made up as a spectacle.
The star of the show however is Lucy Penrose with a portrayal of the younger Garland that is utterly breath taking and an imitation of Garland’s voice that is simply perfect. Penrose is not only completely convincing, her acting is passionate with an ability to show the wide variety of emotions - dealing with MGM’s constant criticising of her weight, to falling in love with her accompanist Roger Edens (Tom Elliot Reade) or defending her father from the crushing belittlement of her domineering mother, that is nothing short of heart breaking.
So much more than just a story weaved around Judy Garland’s timeless songs, Ray Rackham has turned out a gorgeous piece of thrilling theatre.
Runs until 30th July
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy