Through the Mill
London Theatre Workshop
3rd December 2015
An unsteady Judy Garland stumbles onto the stage, to the astonishment of her new dresser and the irritation of The Judy Garland Show’s producers. With a twinkle, she turns to the newest member of her retinue and explains who she is. “You may recognise me as Liza Minelli’s mother”.
Ray Rackham’s play is infused with enormous passion for its subject, a woman who touched the lives of millions with her extraordinary singing and irrepressible charm. A witty and thoughtful piece, Through the Mill looks at snapshots from key moments from Judy Garland’s life, which demonstrate the interplay between her overwhelming professional life and personal struggles. Exceptional live music – delivered by various members of the cast – and a busy set partitioned for various stages of Garland’s career lends itself to an immersive and often powerful theatrical experience.
Through the Mill explores Judy Garland’s life at three stages of her career. Young Judy (Lucy Penrose) catches the eye of Louis B Meyer (Don Cotter), but her wellbeing is threatened by concerns about her appearance and the demands of her overbearing mother (Amanda Bailey). Scenes with Palace Judy (Belinda Wollaston) focus on her triumphant engagement at New York’s Palace Theatre in October 1951, which was dogged by her addiction to barbiturates and anxieties over performing. Judy’s final iteration is as the presenter of her critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful talk show, which ran from 1963-64. Although CBS Judy (Helen Sheals) develops a life-affirming friendship with her new dresser, Judith Kramer (Carmella Brown), tensions with producer Hunt Stromberg (Rob Carter) and husband Sid Luft (Harry Anton) threaten to derail her utterly.
Scenes regularly begin and end with consistently strong performances of some of Garland’s best known songs, at times delivered by one or more Judys. This creates a sense of continuity that compliments Rackham’s recurring themes, in particular her mistreatment within the industry, her addiction to barbiturates and alcohol, and her unfulfilled desire for what Through the Mill’s programme describes as “passionate and visceral” love.
It is this longing, exemplified in so many hits, and notably ‘Do It Again’, ‘You Made Me Love You’ and ‘Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart’, that provides the play’s compelling narrative hook. The death of Young Judy’s father (Joe Shefer) leaves her competing for the affections of an unbearable stage mother and a callous surrogate parent in Louis B Meyer. Later, Palace Judy recounts her disastrous marriage to songwriter David Rose. An indifferent man, Rose is described in a fascinating scene as dedicating hours to his backyard railway, causing him to not only neglect her, but acquiesce to MGM’s insistence that she have an abortion for the sake of her career. Most heartbreaking of all is The Judy Garland Show’s producers’ accusing her of touching her guests too frequently. They note that it looks like she’s “filling a gap”, and in a way they’re right. After all, she would love nothing more than to “reach out and touch everyone watching the damn thing”, and the fact that audiences are turned off by this intensity just exacerbates her feelings of loss.
All three Judys give commendable performances, each capturing their character’s vivacity and complex neuroses. Lucy Penrose is winsome and peppy as Young Judy, and scenes with Roger Edens (an able performance by Tom Elliot Reade) showcase her as a happy and precocious child, at ease with her profession. Yet it is the moments where stardom begins to weigh on her that Penrose excels, capturing the terror of a self-conscious adolescent who’s scrutinised by executives and the public alike. A breathless montage in which she greets swathes of her public, who catch her as she fall and applaud her as she rises, is not only a chorographical highlight, but it enables Penrose to subtly capture the pain of Judy’s lost childhood with just a few expressions.
Belinda Wollaston’s Palace Judy is given the least character development, and her anxieties at performing are occasionally a little repetitive. Yet her dialogues with Anton’s Sid Luft hint at a fascinatingly counter-intuitive need for stability. Though he cares for her deeply, and his insensitivity cuts to the heart of her excuses about indulging in drugs and alcohol, he is an integral part of a corrupting industry. Their subsequent intimacy – compellingly explored by both actors – represents the fusion of all element of her private and professional life, thus trapping her in a cycle of anxiety from which performance offers only temporary release.
In this regard, it is worth noting that as the strongest singer of the three, Wollaston best captures Garland’s mesmeric qualities as a performer, not least during the three Judys’ enigmatic rendition of ‘Over The Rainbow’.
Helen Sheals is sharp tongued and charismatic as CBS Judy, but like Palace Judy she sometimes suffers from delivering too much of the same type of dialogue. It is, however, a rich and dedicated performance. Sheals’ excellent comic timing is integral to spicy discussions with Judith Kramer (a brilliantly wide-eyed Carmella Brown) and the show’s first writer, George Schlatter (Perry Meadowcroft), which both exemplify Garland’s star qualities and speak of her paradoxically combative and guarded nature. Rob Carter’s officious Hunt Stromberg is a worthy antagonist, and both actors should be applauded for the multitude of ways in which they capture the frustrations at each other’s professional behaviour. Yet his treatment of Judith Kramer in a pivotal late scene paints him as uncharacteristically heartless, and slightly undermines his nuanced character. In turn, whilst the reappearance of Sid Luft, now demure and dishevelled, gives some closure to his and Garland’s relationship, Rackham does not explore the couple’s power dynamic with the same conviction as he did with Luft’s scenes with Palace Judy. Yet overall these scenes are compellingly human, capturing the ‘real’ Judy Garland in a way that her show supposedly never could.
Through the Mill offers a fascinating insight into the life of a complex figure, played with conviction by three talented actresses. Though the script is occasionally a little unsubtle, for the most part it offers an insightful perspective on Garland’s self-destructive tendencies, and her desire to be loved is a compelling narrative hook. Coupled with exceptional live music and well delivered renditions of many of Garland’s best known songs, the play makes for a thoroughly memorable theatrical experience.