When a show gets a standing ovation come the curtain calls you have to tread carefully when writing the review, or be very brave. After all, what matters to most actors and producers is the reaction of the paying punters. And the punters reacted more emotionally here than I've witnessed in quite some time. At the end of this show, almost every member of the audience sprang to his or her feet, almost as if they were on strings and someone had just given the chord a yank. Obviously I've seen standing ovations before, but what was unusual about this was the speed - it was almost instant - and it encompassed almost everyone in the auditorium. But the show really deserved no less with Tracie Bennett producing a very moving, powerful and authentic performance that would take a very hard heart indeed not to respond to.
'End of the Rainbow' takes us back to London in 1968 and Judy Garland is in town to complete a five week engagement at the Talk of the Town - a once famous venue in London's West End which closed in 1982. But things are looking rather bleak for Judy as her addictions to drugs and alcohol are taking their toll. Even her loyal piano accompanist and her fiancée (soon to be husband number 5) struggle to keep up Judy's spirits and provide the courage for her to perform.
The show starts in the hotel where she's staying. Before she's been in her suite 2 minutes, her acerbic wit has full reign and she's complaining about the size of the room in comparison with what she remembered from previous stays. 'This room has shrunk' she says. And it's not just the hotel which is subjected to the Garland critical view. 'The English' she says, 'think irony is elegant'.
Looking at William Dudley's sumptuous set at the start of the show, we're lulled into thinking that this will be the only for the play. But there's a surprise in store once we get into the singing and the performance at the Talk of the Town. The back wall suddenly flies away to reveal the band - a fine, but small ensemble of just 6 who nonetheless manage to create a big band sound thanks to an impressive horn section. I don't think Ms Bennett's impersonation of Judy Garland would have been quite so effective without them.
Tracie Bennett really does bring Judy Garland to life and has the audience, almost literally, eating out of her hand. I lost count of the number of times that the man sitting next to me shouted 'Bravo', and he was certainly not on his own. Of course, the Garland fans may have liked almost anything, or at least you may think so. But that would be to belittle Ms Bennett's performance which turns out to be extremely impressive. She captures not only Ms Garland's singing voice almost perfectly, but also the vulnerability of the singer, which I think was one of the main reasons why so many people became loyal fans.
The acting team is completed by Hilton McRae as Ms Garland's droll, but loyal, piano accompanist, Anthony, Stephen Hagan as Mickey the youthfully handsome, soon-to-be husband and Robin Browne who plays several minor characters including a humorous stage manager.
Peter Quilter's script strikes just the right balance between humour and narrative and certainly describes the pain which Judy Garland was facing at this time. However, we don't really get to find out very much about how her days in the studio system as a child star affected her later as an adult. Of course, you can't fit everything into a short play, but it would have been enlightening to have had more background. Other than that minor quibble, the show looks like being a resounding hit.
"Melancholy saga ...For all the skill of the acting and the smoothness of Terry Johnson's production, it's hard to love a play that invites us to wallow in Garland's tragic decline without offering much in the way of enlightenment. "
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"This is not so much a musical as a play with a lot of music woven into it...[Tracie] Bennett is superb."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Tracie Bennett gives a great performance as Garland...Only those who hope for anything more than the schmaltz of suffering will be disappointed."
Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times
"Terry Johnson’s production is practically flawless. "
Paul Vale for The Stage
"There are moments in the theatre when you lean forward in your seat with shivers racing down the spine, and realise there is nowhere on God’s earth you’d rather be. End of the Rainbow is one such occasion, offering one of the greatest musical theatre performances I have ever witnessed...At once fragile and funny, tragic and tough, and rising to superb musical heights, Bennett’s performance is as dazzling as it is unforgettable."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph