Review: “An interesting and inspirational piece of theatre, which you’d be a fool to miss” ★★★★★ Judy!, The Arts Theatre

Following a highly acclaimed run at Southwark Playhouse Ray Rackham’s biopic musical play about the Hollywood icon Judy Garland is back and has lost none of its charm, writes Nicky Sweetland.

The name of the show has changed from Through the Mill to simply Judy! and at the Arts Theatre, the performers are faced with a traditional pros arch stage rather than the thrust, which gave a real closeness with the audience when the show was at Southwark last summer.

Helen Sheals, Lucy Penrose and Belinda Wollaston in Judy! at the Arts Theatre. Photo by Lara Genovese

Somehow they have managed to keep an intimate feel to the production however, with everyone’s favourite ‘girl next door’ portrayed with such an astonishing depth, that you can’t help but be drawn in.

Rackham has an astute talent for layering stories, with his previous stage success Apartment 40C interlocking tales across decades. The interwoven plots within Judy! see three eras of the performer’s life and career, expertly portrayed by a trio of ultra talented actresses, who illustrate the star’s many struggles behind her successes.

West End debutante Lucy Penrose plays Garland at the time when she was given her break in showbiz at the tender age of 12, before shooting to stardom when cast as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. Penrose has developed into a formidable force since first being cast in the show and her every movement and facial expression are perfectly pitched to exude the essence of the young star without it being an impersonation.

Belinda Wollaston gets possibly the most difficult task when giving us Judy in her Palace Theatre Days, a time when at the age of 29, she was already seen by many as being past her best. Wollaston’s sensitive and impassioned performance – particularly when delivering her Palace Medley – is simply breathtaking.

Not to be outdone by her younger cohorts, Helen Sheals also unleashes some powerhouse vocals to play CBS Judy, bringing a huge dose of humour balanced with fragility to the well-known star.

This is billed as a play with music (rather than a musical) and the emphasis is very much on the intricate and well-timed dialogue, but when the famous standards – including “Get Happy” and “The Man that Got Away” – do come along, my goodness do they bring the house down, with each of the Judys giving momentous and inspiring renditions.

There are also some impressive performances by the supporting cast, with Perry Meadowcroft as George Schlatter and Carmella Brown as Judith Kramer, ensuring it’s not just the ‘Talent’ that takes the limelight and with each ensemble member doubling up as the house band, there is a wonderful sense of support and camaraderie, which emanates from the stage.

Judy! is a heartwarming show about a much-loved legend played with aplomb by a hugely talented cast. If you’re a fan of Judy Garland, it’s a must see, but even if you’re not, this is an interesting and inspirational piece of theatre, which you’d be a fool to miss.

Judy! is at the Arts Theatre until 17th June 2017. 

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