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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Trafalgar Studios


  Tracie Bennett/ Ph: Robert Day

In north London there is a tiny fringe theatre that used to be a hospital mortuary. Many a show has been tried and tested there. Most of them are quietly buried and never heard of again. But about 10 years ago there appeared a play with music called Last Song of the Nightingale.
Written by Peter Quilter, the three-hander starred former soap star and now West End regular Tracie Bennett and charted the final days of an American diva called Martha Lewis. It did not matter much that nobody had heard of Lewis, because the moment Bennett opened her mouth to speak or sing it became clear that the diva Quilter was writing about was in fact Judy Garland.
Bennett was brilliant. Her performance blew the roof off that little venue and I never understood why one of the theatre's few memorable offerings disappeared without trace.
Rewritten, re-titled and revived, this fringe fare is now a fully staged West End production directed by Terry Johnson and boasting a powerful five-piece swing band. And this time the show makes no bones about the identity of its subject. It seems that either author, producer or both are no longer concerned about a possible libel action. Not that End of the Rainbow or its earlier incarnation revealed much about Garland’s alcohol and drug addiction that we did not know.
Most of the action is set in a posh London hotel room, although occasionally, when a song segues into a concert scene, the back wall of William Dudley’s design lifts like a curtain to reveal the band.
Among the room’s rococo sofas and chairs sits a grand piano at which Anthony (Hilton McRae), Garland’s gay, English accompanist and only friend in London, attempts to rehearse what turned out to be the star’s final London season in 1969.
Quilter’s script is largely one long, albeit witty row between the 47-year-old Garland and the young, exploitative manager who would become her fifth husband, Mickey Deans (Stephen Hagan). She begs, implores and demands drugs. He mostly refuses, though only to protect his investment, not his fiancé.
Quilter was probably right not to attempt a life story. Flashbacks to past husbands, Oz and St Louis would have made for a wearying biographical play. Instead we get a snapshot of a star’s agonising yet flamboyant final flourish. Despite the tantrums, Garland comes across as terrific company. This is a vulnerable woman, doomed by her addictions but with a viciously witty sense of humor that is as big as her ego.
When Bennett’s Garland discovers that the pills she found in Anthony’s bag, and then swallowed, were for his sister’s dog, she roles on her back, plays dead and then cocks her leg.
But the main revelation here is not so much about Garland's wit or vulnerability, but Bennett, who has the singing talent and the acting gumption needed to fill her subject's shoes – at least for two hours or so.
Here the songs sometimes serve as lonely soliloquies. "I Can’t Give You Anything But


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