Can you imagine what it would be like if Judy Garland were still alive? In her late eighties would she be shuffling from one tacky daytime chat show to the next still living off ancient glories like The Wizard of Oz and Easter Parade, trotting out the same old stories of booze and drugs to any daytime host who’ll listen and favouring audiences with her uncontrolled vibrato? Or perhaps she’d have got sober, like Elaine Stritch, and be twinkling her way through A Little Night Music on Broadway or could it have been Judy instead of her parodic daughter officiating at the schlock gay wedding in Sex and the City 2?

‘End of the Rainbow’, Peter Quilter‘s smartly-scripted play shows a snapshot of this giant ego undermined by wracking self-doubt as she heads for a final meltdown in 1968 struggling to repay debts with a five-week season at the Talk of the Town in London buoyed by the romance of her newly acquired fifth husband (and allegedly third gay one) Mickey Deans.

In a gloriously inaccurate Richard Mawbey wig (for London, Garland had cut her hair in a gamine style like Peter Pan) Tracie Bennett has the face, figure, body language and voice of Garland as well as both the flame and the warmth of her fiery, funny character pierced by crystal shards of incessant need for reassurance and fear of separation.

Surely this is an Olivier award-winning impersonation and she carries the evening with power and sinew worthy of Judy’s own survival technique.

William Dudley’s richly pretty set mutates slickly between her suite at the Ritz and the Talk of the Town revealing a band of stunning capabilities thrashed to a frenzy by MD Gareth Valentine when Bennett takes the stage in a range of numbers from brassy You Made Me Love You and the Trolley Song to painfully reflective Over the Rainbow and The Man That Got Away. She’s in such fine, belting voice, that the reverb added to simulate the ‘stage’ acoustic is almost excessive.

In one sense, Bennett fails Garland because in performance she’s just too good: Judy’s London appearances were uneven to say the least: contemporary critics referred to her cracked, flat notes, her apparent lack of concentration, that her voice had ‘taken a beating’, or that the show was only successful because of her defiant personality, enduring popularity and ‘instant hysteria among an audience determined to clap itself silly’.

Although this is only a ‘slice’ of the loaf that was Garland, indeed – being the end slice it’s effectively the crust, Bennett measures the progress from the funny, smart, madcap Judy excited at the prospect of a season in London to the Ritalin-raddled wreck at the end with tremendous control and such authenticity that when, in a faultless best-supporting actor performance delivered with wit and affection, Hilton McRae as her loving gay pianist suggests a quiet mutual retirement to seaside domesticity, you almost believe Judy might take it.

At 2 hours 30, it’s arguably one ‘I’m not going on’ too long, and there’s a sense of cyclical repetition which is perhaps why ‘Get Happy’ was trimmed from the list of songs.

Garland’s long dead, and when the audience rose to its feet to hail the star at the curtain call, the cheers were for Tracie Bennett, not Judy, and thoroughly deserved.

The Public ReviewsOriginally published on The Public Reviews.