It's been 31 years since a show called Judy played at what was then the Strand Theatre, with Scottish performer Lesley Mackie winning an Olivier Award for playing the title role of Judy Garland. More recently, Tracie Bennett was Olivier and Tony nominated for her performance as Judy Garland in Peter Quilter's play End of the Rainbow that came to the Trafalgar Studios in 2010 and then played on Broadway in 2012.
The enduring fascination in this firebrand film and singing superstar, who was a child performer in vaudeville before becoming a film star as the young Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz at the age of sixteen and then a global singing phenomenon, is as much about her troubled life as it was about her talent. (She died at the age of just 47 of a drugs overdose). Ray Rackham's anxious, occasionally earnest portrait of her rise and fall is full of warmth rather than prurience.
First premiered as Through the Mill at London Theatre Workshop that he runs, and subsequently at Southwark Playhouse, it now comes to the Arts Theatre, virtually across the road from the Hippodrome and the Talk of the Town where she played one of her final residencies in 1969. It's both a history lesson but also a quietly moving portrait of a woman in frequent emotional and professional distress. Rackham's play is cleverly propelled by a central impressive device: instead of relying on one Garland impersonator, he offers us three versions of the star, as a young woman (Lucy Penrose), as a concert performer when she gave her legendary performances at Broadway's Palace Theatre (Belinda Woolaston) and as a star of her own TV talk show (Helen Sheals).
Each actress is able to bring a different facet to play, but all are strikingly brilliant singers of her songs, with Sheals bringing a spellbindingly desperate dignity to "The Man That Got Away", Wollaston offering hope for the happiness she never found in "Get Happy", and Penrose in sumptuous voice for "You Made Me Love You".
They are joined by a cast of actor-musicians who bring full musical power to their accompaniment while also populating supporting characters like Norman Jewish and LB Mayer.
Judy! tickets are now on sale.