There are some gay men through whom the word ‘Judy’ runs like a stick of cheap rock.

To question their devotion to the long-deceased Ms Garland is to adopt the same dangerous stance as contemporary Twitter heretics who suggest the much-loved Sheridan Smith may be a bit of a flake for not turning up to work six nights a week.

There are parallels: Garland was also notoriously unpredictable, both are good interpretative singers and both fared much better on screen projects than carrying eight shows a week with the sky-high expectations of nightly paying customers.

But it is the fealty of this audience that inspires productions like End of the Rainbow in which Tracie Bennett and a storming band laid bare the veins and sinews of the later, ravaged Judy. It means the Palladium can stage in October a show actually titled Judy Garland in Concert as though she weren’t dead for 65 years, and now brings Through the Mill, charting her debut, MGM and television years with three different actresses and a band of actor-musicians to Southwark Playhouse.

Whereas the End of the Rainbow band was brassy and cinematic, new saxophonous orchestrations by Simon Holt for Through the Mill aptly showcase the swung and bluesy Judy, and songs which had felt embedded in celluloid emerge fresh and clean and clear, despite the pressures the character is under to deliver either as an ingénue too chubby for the screen, or when reeling from the Nielsen ratings which sank her 1963 TV show beneath the popular tide of Bonanza.

A ‘play with music’ including twelve songs isn’t a musical. As creator Ray Rackham pointed out in the post-show discussion, if it were you could charge more – but the lengthy exposition tells you nothing you couldn’t glean from Wikipedia apart from the suggestion Garland’s father was a homosexual paedophile, and her mother apparently a humourless martinet straight out of Chekhov. Sadly, the overlong script and cardboard interpretations of some of the ancillary characters make the evening drag whenever your favourite Judy isn’t singing.

As ‘CBS Judy’ Helen Sheals crowns the enterprise with experience and huge skill, hers is a fine interpretation, also the most realistic in the dialogue, and Lucy Penrose carries ‘Young Judy’ from home to Oz with both girlish urgency and an astonishingly accurate belt.

An ambitious production which may travel on. But definitely one for the fans.

 

Until 30 July.