Review: End of the Rainbow

Emma Lee hails Tracie Bennett's stunning performance as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow at Norwich Theatre Royal

She was born Frances Gumm, but became Judy Garland - one of the biggest and brightest stars in the world.

But stars fade and burn out.

And Peter Quilter's critically acclaimed emotional roller-coaster of a play, End of the Rainbow, which opened at Norwich Theatre Royal last night (Monday), tells the tragic story of the last few weeks of her life.

On the brink of her demons – pills, booze and men – finally consuming her after a life-time of abuse, Garland is attempting to make a comeback at the London cabaret club The Talk of the Town - with mixed success.

It takes a formidably talented, and fearless, actress to play an icon - and a hugely complex, flawed, manipulative, brilliant, monstrous icon at that.

But Tracie Bennett is more than up to the task.

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The former Coronation Street actress was heaped with plaudits during the play's run in the West End.

And her portrayal of Garland's slide into oblivion is simply breathtaking – there's no other word for it.

It's one of those performances which reminds you why theatre is such an exciting medium.

One moment you want to boo and hiss her attention-seeking diva antics: when Bennett's Garland is bad, she's very, very bad.

The next you're howling with laughter at one of her whip smart-one liners – or her impression of a cocker spaniel.

Then her frailties are laid bare, and you just want to jump up on the stage, give her a hug and tell her everything's going to be okay.

And that powerhouse of a voice – that belies Bennett's tiny stature – gives you goosebumps.

Hilton McCrae gives a beautifully measured performance as Garland's piano player and confidante Anthony - the calm among the storm of tantrums and rages.

When it comes, Garland's most famous song, Somewhere Over The Rainbow, has never been more ironic, or tear-jerking. And, taking her curtain call, Bennett had the audience on its feet.

After a whistlestop tour of the UK, Bennett is off to Broadway.

So make sure you catch End of the Rainbow at the Theatre Royal while you can.

Just don't forget to take some tissues with you.

End of the Rainbow is at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday, September 10. Box office: 01603 630000 or visit www.theatreroyalnowrich.co.uk

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