Through the Mill at Southwark Playhouse
The Southwark Playhouse has again taken on a story that celebrates the bygone values of old school showbiz. Earlier this year Grey Gardens told the tale of the deeply kitsch Beale clan, a sincere but arch valentine to the eccentricity and faded grandeur of its misfit protagonists. Through The Mill presumably attracts a wider audience, given the story is about the iconic Judy Garland and her turbulent career, which has seemingly made her a martyr of the entertainment industry for millions of devoted fans. It deserves a wide audience too; this is a far more than just a slapped-together medley of Judy songs attached to a rickety narrative – it’s a poignant and meditative story related with real sharpness and fluidity.
Through the Mill transcends any pre-existing stance on the singing of show tunes (in which every damn vowel is sucked dry); if you do indeed love these old bangers than you’re in for a treat but if not, don’t fret. Independently produced, this production is the creation of writer-director Ray Rackham whose story is structured around three different points of Garland’s career with the stage often fielding several Judys at once – although the musical sequences (directed by Jordan Li Smith) are the only sections of the play where these actors actually interact. Rackham handles this roundelay of memories and nostalgia with aplomb; his direction results in the lovely effect of leafing through a particularly melodramatic photo album. His writing is very commendable too, with the script balancing moments that are funny, romantic and disturbing with equal skill throughout.
Yet Through the Mill is more than just a conceptual success: the performances and costumes are integral to bringing these ghosts of showbiz to life. It’s fitting to praise the three actresses playing Garland first of all – Helen Sheals is wonderful as the middle-aged Judy at CBS, by this point a formidable diva locking horns with corporate overseers, her only support coming from her sweet-natured dresser Judith (an excellent Carmella Brown). Next is 30-year old Judy, readying for her comeback at the Palace Theatre, played by Belinda Wollaston, who provides perhaps the strongest vocals of the three as well as carrying the heavy load of both the singer’s addiction issues and her passionate marriage with Sid Luft (Harry Anton). And finally there is the most iconic Judy of all, the plucky but deeply vulnerable teenager rocketed into stardom by MGM. Lucy Penrose’s pitch-perfect portrayal is genuinely heart-breaking due to the cruelty and abuse she receives over her appearance and weight from both the studio bosses and her terrifying mother (Amanda Bailley). The three actresses all contribute greatly to the emotional impact of the play, with the exceptional pit band also acting in supporting roles for the Garlands in an intriguing (albeit not completely successful) symbolic gesture.
Through the Mill is thankfully far more successful than the sentimental hagiography to Judy Garland it potentially could have been. It is an excellent example of an original play that matches crowd-pleasing punch with a fundamental artistic integrity that brings out the universal depth of its subject matter. When Judy sang You Made Me Love You, we couldn’t help but agree.
Through the Mill is on at Southwark Playhouse from 6th until 30th July 2016, for further information or to book visit here.