New Theatre, Cardiff
Tue 20 Sept
words: AMELIA FORSBROOK
To go into End of the Rainbow expecting the finest drama known to man would be going into the theatre completely missing the point. As the production’s name suggests, this is a tribute to the better days where two opposing images of the performer Judy Garland uncomfortably collide. And, as memories of sepia-tinted innocence clash with a worldly, eccentric and intoxicated cynicism, we witness the replay of an aftermath which crescendos towards the very public end of a life lived in the spotlight.
This positioning immediately creates a great challenge for the producers beyond the show. How does one present a creative, stand-alone piece while maintaining the sense of loss befitting a performer standing in the shadow of her previous glory? How does one engineer such a work so that its star manages to actively and strongly represent, not simple embody, an idea of weakness? These questions, regrettably, are left frustratingly unresolved and the piece’s self-reflective status as a musical commenting on the demise of a musician leads to an integral, inescapable contradiction. Indeed, like a young actress force-fed amphetamines by her studios, End of the Rainbow was set up to fail.
But, against this, Tracie Bennett’s Judy bears an awareness of her own power and cult status which enables her frail figure to fill the imposing stage and allows the production to provide an enriching continuation of the Garland myth. Ghosts of the classic film are evident as the performer decides whether or not to wear a pair of red shoes to a radio interview and as, in a particularly desperate moment, she makes shameless, self-sacrificial demands on a manager at the Ritz, asking ‘How’s it gonna look when you’ve got Dorothy splattered over your red carpet’.
End of the Rainbow is a self-consciously elevated portrayal of Garland and her reputation. As we applaud songs huskily delivered through tar-stained vibrato, one gets the sense that we have become unwittingly complicit in the repetition of history. In realist drama, Bennett’s songs would form uninterrupted nuggets of characterisation; in musical theatre, her vocals echo Garland’s final concerts not just in presentation, but also in reception. Like the thousands of Brits who turned up to witness Garland’s season at the Talk of the Town, we are guilty of perpetuating a damaging breed of fame as our applause sees us play the part of a demanding, destructive audience. This is a clever, though-provoking parallel, yet encompasses another of the production’s unresolved contradictions where the audience arguably unwittingly play a part that no-one’s left to view. It certainly makes for unsettling viewing.
It will come as a surprise to few that there’s no pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow. If Miss Garland’s most famous song was one of innocence and hope, this musical is its bitter antidote as it dishes out a snarling reminder that Happily Ever Afters are sometimes nothing more than delusional, failed fantasies.