We've got a confession to make: one of the reasons we went to see End of the Rainbow at Trafalgar Studios last night was the promise of hearing some incredible songs sung live, rather than listening to recordings.
Born a decade after Judy Garland's death in 1969, we've never heard The Trolley Song, When You're Smiling or Come Rain or Come Shine live on stage. (Unlike the guy next to us, who proudly tells us in a reverent whisper that he "saw her, live, twice, you know.")
Happily, Tracie Bennett's renditions are phenomenal. Attacking the stage in a number of spangly costumes, she throws e.v.e.r.y.thing at these famous songs. Particularly brilliant is The Man That Got Away, the opening bars started while lying, crying prostrate on the floor, building to that incredible, perfectly phrased climax and showing off just what a great piece of music Gershwin composed.
Between these fantastic performances, we see Judy Garland's private life, living in a Ritz suite in 1968, while she embarked on a five-week run of concerts called The Talk of the Town. She has a new fiancé, Mickey Deans (although she can't remember if he's going to be husband number four or number five), and is attempting to wean herself off the amphetamines she's been taking since she was a Hollywood child star in the 1930s. And stop drinking. And get out of debt.
Unfortunately, these hotel scenes in no way live up to the songs. Peter Quilter's script seems stretched (we learn from our devoted neighbour that this show started life at the Edinburgh Festival, an hour shorter), and tells us nothing new about its star. Apart from that she's a pretty nasty piece of work. With no tragic arc, it's hard to feel sorry for a character that's bent on self-destruction. Too often characters are forced to say totally unnatural things to fill in the biography. And too often the script resorts to cheap swearing and crass "queer" gags to raise a laugh from the audience.
But for Judy fans, none of this will matter. We were assured by our fellow audience member that Bennett's impersonation is spot on, from her musicality to her drug-addled finger tips. The role is a real tour de force for the actress; we might even suggest that theatre awards await...
End of the Rainbow plays at the Trafalgar Studios until 5 March. Visit www.endoftherainbowlondon.com for more information and to book tickets.
Photo of Tracie Bennett (Judy Garland) in End Of The Rainbow by Robert Day