★★★★★ | Through The Mill, Southwark PlayhouseCREDIT: Southwark Playhouse
It’s Judy Garland times three in the new musical Through The Mill now playing at Southwark Playhouse.
The show gives us Garland in three different stages in her life. There’s the young Judy before her Wizard of Oz role – ages 13 through 16 – brilliantly played by Lucy Penrose. Then we have the Palace Judy – the time in Garland’s life when she was performing on Broadway at the Palace Theatre, age 29 – with Belinda Wollaston in the role. Then finally we are presented with CBS Judy – the 47 year-old star (played by Helen Sheals) who was in the last year of her life during which she had her own television show on America’s CBS network.
These three eras of Judy’s life are superbly intertwined in a show that’s both fantastic and tragic. We all know that Judy died at the age of 47 in London due to an over-dosage of barbiturates. But she had such a tumultuous life, and it didn’t make matters any better in that she was an extremely insecure, and nervous, woman. Young Judy’s father (played by Joe Shefer) ran a cinema, but he also had a predilection for young boys. Her mother Ethel (Amanda Bailey) was an extremely controlling stage mother. But Palace Judy’s life isn’t much better. By this time she takes various drugs just to help her get through her day (and to get her on stage). Her life seems to be a mess, though she’s got her husband Sid Luft (Harry Anton) with her at all times. By the tim CBS Judy (who actually opens the show with a rounding version of ‘Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries’) sung brilliantly by Sheals, her life seems to be on track, she’s got a hit television show, but the network keeps on demanding more and more from her. It’s too much for a woman as fragile as Judy, and though her death is not played out on stage, we all know what’s going to happen to her.
Through the Mill is excellent. It’s all due to the three women who play Judy, they are all very good but it’s Penrose who shines a bit more because she plays a version of Judy that is young and innocent, and Penrose conveys that excellently. When Young Judy and Palace Judy duet on ‘Zing, Went the Strings of my Heart’ together in the intimate theatre, it’s an event! And when all three get together to sing the finale – ‘Over the Rainbow’ – there’s not a dry eye in the house.
Director Ray Rackham, along with the rest of his crew, have staged a musical that’s larger than life in a theatre that’s as intimate as a living room. And the parallel timeframes used in this production is genius. Cleverly, the musicians also act in the show, from Carmella Brown who plays CBS Judy’s assistant, to Don Cotter who is very good as Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM who greenlit Garland for Wizard of Oz.
Please go see Through the Mill, even if you’re not a Judy Garland fan. It’s a fabulous show.
Through the Mill is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until July 30th .
Tim Baros writes film and theatre articles/ reviews for Pride Life and The American magazines and websites, as well as for Hereisthecity.com, Blu-RayDefinition.com and TheGayUK.com. He has also written for In Touch and TNT Magazines, SquareMile.com and LatinoLife.co.uk. He is a voting member for the UK Regional Critics Circle and the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association (GALECA – of which he is the UK representative). In addition, he has produced and directed two films: The Shirt and Rex Melville Desire: The Musical.