There’s an unassuming little rehearsal space in East London – wood floor, parish notices, stacked chairs. A table at the back buzzes with laptops, low chatter and paperwork. A keyboard sits in anticipation on its stand, and a makeshift set has been constructed from an old sofa and the resident grand piano. You’d be forgiven for not guessing it’s where one of the most heralded musicals of 2011, Tony and Olivier award nominated show, Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow, is coming to life again, this time as a UK tour. Musical Theatre Review was invited along to rehearsals.
Taking the reins as director is Daniel Buckroyd (artistic director of the Mercury Theatre, Colchester), along with a cast led by stage and screen performer Sam Attwater as Mickey, seasoned pro Gary Wilmot as Anthony, and playing the iconic lead role of Judy Garland, actress and TV personality Lisa Maxwell. (For some performances, Ellen Verenieks will also play the part).
For those who didn’t manage to catch the show last time, the play is set in 1968, around the time of Judy Garland’s final ‘comeback’ performances at the Talk of the Town. Set in one hotel room, she wrestles with her young new fiancée, her devoted accompanist and her crippling addictions. Far from a sob story, the magnificence of the show is its humour, no amount of pathos is allowed to linger for too long, and there’s plenty of joy in the story too.
Despite the potentially daunting success of its previous staging, Buckroyd seems to relish the challenges this new production will present. “There’s quite big shoes to fill,” he muses, “although what’s helpful is that none of us saw it. It means that we’re not constantly coming out with ‘what were they doing?’ That’s always a risk with theatre that’s been very successful. What we’ve done is gone back to the script and we’ve been discovering its riches, it’s a fascinating piece of work.” Author Peter Quilter has been on hand for advice and feedback on the production, which is impressive, considering it will be the 22nd incarnation to date which he will have seen.
Watching the scenes and songs unfold, even at a rough rehearsal stage, is a constant reinforcement that this is no ordinary tribute musical. Those kind of shows fulfil audiences hungry for nostalgia and an easy narrative. That’s all there, but this is so much more – and Lisa Maxwell is quick to agree: “It’s a play, it’s an autobiography, so it’s educational as well, it’s got all those amazing songs in it, it’s a comedy, it’s drama, it’s just got everything… I think it’s the best value ticket there is.”
There’s a kind of voyeuristic pleasure in seeing the bare bones of the show. Strip away the lights, set, band, costumes, and you end up with just three people, telling the story behind a legend, which is at the heart of the script. On his role, Attwater describes his meeting with the author. “Peter Quilter said to me it [my role] was based on two characters, it wasn’t just about Mickey Dean, there were parts of two different people in there, so it was kind of… just read it, and take from it what is there, so it’s been easier for me [to interpret].”
Maxwell is also alert to the balance she must keep between the icon and the actor. “I’m really mindful because whenever I go and see people playing famous characters, I want to be reminded of that person, I think it’s a bit of a cop out to not even try to get a bit of a Judy out! There are moments in the play that absolutely smack of quintessential Judy Garland, and those I think I have to take with both hands and just absolutely remind everybody ‘This is who this is!’ But there are moments as well where it’s Judy Garland in real life, it isn’t just about the Judy that everybody knew as a performer, this is a play about a complete woman who had a lot of issues, and in order to play those truthfully, you can’t always be doing Judy when she’s ‘on’, so it’s finding the light and shade. She was absolutely truthful with everything, the good and the bad, and I think that’s why people loved her so much.”
The show also happens to be about another time and another way of life for the industry. Gary Wilmot reminisces: “I remember cabaret nights with the likes of Anthony Newley and people like that where they walked out, and although it was a club half the size of this church, their personality was amazing. They worked the room, they had conversations, everything was seamless, there was underscoring, thought went into it; but now someone just walks out and starts singing a bunch of songs from a show and they call that cabaret, but it isn’t cabaret.”
The sentiment isn’t lost on Buckroyd: “We’re all used to looking at celebrity now as a flash in the pan because of how fast the media works, and how low the bar is in respect to celebrity. This is a story of a different magnitude. Judy Garland was truly a star, and that status had been built up over time. Her audience, her public, watched her rise and fall in slow-mo, in cinemascope. So it’s a very big story.”
Let’s hope this show isn’t the last of its kind – at least in this instance, it’s clear that we’re in safe hands.
End of the Rainbow begins its tour at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester in February 2016.