End of the Rainbow, Trafalgar Studios, London

5.00

 

Watching End of the Rainbow, it's hard to believe that Judy Garland is dead, so closely does Tracie Bennett resemble her, bodily and in spirit. In Peter Quilter's play – a depiction of the one-time Dorothy's final fight for the limelight in the months before her death from an accidental drug overdose – Bennett nimbly rasps and cackles, seeming to speak and sing with the late actress's voice. Her triumphant performance shows Garland wrestling with a medley of addictions – to barbiturates, Benzedrine, Ritalin and other "adult candy" as well as to alcohol, men and applause. Her characterisation is at once alluring, in its dizzy abandon, and terrifying, as you watch a fragile person heading for the brink.

In the luxurious London hotel room which provides the setting for much of the action, we see Garland leaning out of the window perilously greeting "adoring fans" who are actually mesmerised by the spectacle of her suicide. We see her rowing with her toyboy fiancé Mickey Deans (a smouldering Stephen Hagan), and crawling on the floor begging for drugs, booze, anything. But her pencilled on face remains intact throughout, and she's not wrong when she cries: "I could vomit my dinner into their laps and still be glamorous."

Hilton McRae plays Garland's put upon yet devoted pianist Anthony brilliantly. His touching performance adds gentle humour to moments which would otherwise seem lost to the hysterical. When Garland shrieks "You homo!" at Mickey during a blazing row, Anthony remarks wryly: "No dear, I'm the homo."

Despite having vowed to get her off uppers, Mickey administers Garland drugs in an effort to stave off the tantrums and – most importantly – to keep her performing. Anthony is desperate to rescue her. But both men seem unable to stop the freight train of dementedness. Garland appears doped up on BBC radio, is carried in drunk by a hotel porter and repeatedly sobs like a child into the carpet.

Terry Johnson's production is a tremendous, if painful, tribute to Garland. Bennett is stunning and exhausting to watch; a star playing a star. "Immortality would be nice. Yes I'd like that," she says at the play's close. "Immortality might just make up for everything."

To 5 March (020 7907 7071)

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