Review: Miss Garland at Twilight: USQ Arts Theatre (Toowoomba)

5 September, 2013 by No Comments

Image: Cindy Laine, USQ Photography.

I’ve had a lot of chats with a lot of different grandmas over the course of my journalistic career.

Grandmas who sent husbands off to war, never to see them again. Grandmas who survived the Depression, grandmas forgotten by their children, grandmas befuddled by a rapidly changing world.

Some grandmas are funny, some are sad. But spend some time with grandmas – really give them your ear – and they all have a few things in common. They will talk of days gone by, they will reminisce about their childhood, they will tell stories of people you don’t know, they will show you the treasures accumulated over their lives, they will ponder the choices they made and the roads they travelled, they may even break into song.

Now just imagine “grandma” is the icon of long-ago Hollywood, the infamous Judy Garland. We’d all love to have a chat with her, right? Well, Bernadette Meenach gave audiences that chance in her self-devised show Ms Garland at Twilight at the University of Southern Queensland on Wednesday, September 4.

This was no straight re-telling of the Judy Garland story; a traipse through the all-too-familiar tragedy of child stardom, drug and alcohol abuse, and death far too young. This was Judy Garland as never seen before – a life story told as though she was grandma and you had dropped in for a cuppa. It was rambly and roundabout, because that’s the way grandmas like to tell their tales. But more importantly perhaps, it offered a rare insight into Judy Garland the person, instead of Judy Garland the persona. Judy Garland – had she lived long enough to become a grandma and regale us with her story – complete with quirky mannerisms, self-deprecating insecurities, and none of the airbrushing of modern Hollywood.

Just three performers took the stage during the one-hour show – Bernadette (a USQ lecturer currently completing a research project investigating how to represent life stories through live performance) as Judy, Patrick Dwyer who joined her for two numbers, and pianist Morgan Chalmers who played Ms Garland’s accompanist Mort Lindsay. But this show is all about “the greatest entertainer who ever lived”, and Bernadette did the Garland legacy proud with her empathetic acting and powerful singing. She did everything possible to bring us into Garland’s world. There was no need for any grandma-like arm clutching, because we were right there with her – we didn’t want to cut this visit short.

I attended this show with my 17-year-old daughter, who knew little of the old Hollywood legends, and was even less familiar with the music of the era (except of course for “Over the Rainbow” – and then only perhaps because the cast of Glee had once performed it). I thought it may have left her cold, but she was very quick to join the rest of the audience to the sold out show for the standing ovation.

“It just didn’t matter that I knew nothing about Judy Garland,” she said afterwards.

“That performance just made me care about the person telling the story. It was amazing.”

And that, surely, is what great theatre is all about. Making people care.

The once-in-a-lifetime talent that was Judy Garland, the evocative music of the time, the nostalgic references to the people and places of a Golden Era – that was all part of the Ms Garland at Twilight. But what really set this show apart was how it managed to bring Judy Garland from icon to real person – and make you appreciate that while Fate robbed her of the chance to grow old like grandma and be around today to tell us her story, we are lucky that artists such as Bernadette Meenach can give us the next best thing.

Merryl Miller is a former journalist with the Toowoomba Telegraph and The Chronicle newspapers, and former editor of Style magazine. She has won awards for her columns, and has a particular interest in arts and education.