Image (supplied QTC): Christen O’Leary
At the time Judy Garland was destroying herself behind closed doors and on stage at Talk of the Town nightclub during her last concert season I also happened to be in London.
It was the winter of 1968-69 and I remembered seeing snow then for the first time. I didn’t, however, see any of Ms Garland’s shows during that 5 week season not only because I couldn’t afford it, but also because I wasn’t interested. Judy Garland was somewhat passé, known less for her artistry and more for the sad scandals that continued to plague her life – a bit of an embarrassment, really and old, after all.
I remembered hearing about her death in 1969 and, although finding it sad, was not surprised. At the time of her death aged 47 – what I had thought of as old – she was already iconic but the legend that was ‘Garland’ – the tragic, self-destructive artist – continued to grow after death. It was via the legend that I got to know about Judy Garland and heard her songs and saw her movies and watched black and white documentaries of her performing solo and with daughters Liza and Lorna and then Liza talking about ‘Mumma.’
Then, along comes Peter Quilter‘s semi biographical play with music End of the Rainbow in a co-production by Queensland Theatre Company and QPAC. First produced in Sydney in 2005 and subsequently world-wide, this big, new production directed by David Bell focusses on the last seven months of Judy Garland’s private life – that time we ‘shared’ London – she in a suite at the Ritz Hotel, me in a basement bedsit in Shepherd’s Bush.
Quilter’s play drives home the real tragedy – the slow, inevitable downward spiral of one of America’s sweethearts into a morass of co-dependency, neediness and the ugly struggle with drink and drugs that everyone thought they knew about but didn’t really. The play juxtaposes the energy, warmth and brilliance of Garland’s gigantic stage persona with the very human wreck holed up in her hotel suite with newest boyfriend and ‘protector’ Mickey Deans (an enigmatic portrayal by Anthony Standish) and long-time friend and accompanist Anthony (Hayden Spencer). Both men play characters who support Garland with company, drugs, booze and, in one of the most moving scenes in the play as Anthony her gay friend proposes to her, true love. Of course, she rejects him. It’s a lovely moment played beautifully by Mr Spencer. Both Mr Standish and Mr Spencer are fine actors but the play asks little more of them than to serve as foils to Christen O’Leary‘s Judy Garland.
Onstage for almost the entire play, Ms O’Leary brings new life to both sides of Quilter’s tragic creation. She is, quite simply, superb in the role, sounding the highs and lows of Judy’s emotional life – by turns frail then bossy, sexy, funny, childlike and knowing. And, of course it’s a play about Judy Garland the performer so we’re also going to have to see the performer on stage strutting her stuff. In this production Mr Bell provides the opportunity for Ms O’Leary and she takes it magnificently and thrillingly acting, singing, dancing her way through Garland standards and showing us what may have happened behind those closed doors. This role demands much, and Christen O’Leary’s performance is beautiful in its apparent effortlessness – the mark of a true triple-threat and fine artist.
For lovers of Garland’s music, Ms O’Leary’s interpretations under the Musical Direction of Andrew McNaughton and his 5 piece band are just terrific. As the bongos set up the Garland favourite Come Rain or Come Shine the wonder that was Judy ‘live’ comes flooding back with the full treatment. Aided by David Walter‘s lighting design, Ms O’Leary notches up the dazzle even further singing fabulously and capturing a thousand tiny nuances in song and action – the fluttering drawl in Judy’s speech, the phrasing of the songs and sassy asides, her sexy prowl and a skipping, kittenish step whether high on chemicals, audience love or the sheer joy of performing. Then there’s the signature Garland flick of the microphone and the cord draped across those slight shoulders. Bill Haycock‘s costuming is gorgeous and his designs lovingly recreate Garland’s stage gowns now familiar to us from video and stills. Sound by Tony Brumpton and Sam Maher and audio visual designs and realisations by Tim Roane layer in Garland’s inner and outer worlds.
It’s a joy to watch and, in the watching and listening as Christen O’Leary the artist gives so much so brilliantly and so joyously, that I began to understand some of what it must have been for an audience back then to see Garland at work – live – to feed on that energy and be seduced by the ingredients of her particular brand of stage magic. I rather wish I had made the effort to catch one of the Talk of the Town shows in that snowy winter way back.
And it is Christen O’Leary’s performance which ultimately transcends some of the production’s weak points. The production values – whilst beautifully rendered – were often distractions rather than enhancements. Lengthy scene changes, audio visual projections and a set that placed the action too far away at times worked against the play’s intimacy and momentum. Of course I adored watching Garland perform but it’s Judy behind closed doors where the real dramatic action and interest in End of the Rainbow lies.
End of the Rainbow plays at QPAC’s Playhouse from 2-24 March. See the website for details.