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REVIEW: End Of The Rainbow | The Playhouse, Brisbane

The last few months of Judy Garland’s tragic life comes alive on a Brisbane stage in End Of The Rainbow thanks to a powerful performance from Christen O’Leary.

Christen O’Leary in End Of The Rainbow | The Playhouse

Child abuse can take many forms, and these days no child would be allowed to be subjected to the treatment meted out by MGM Studios to child stars like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Forced into a cycle of being fed pills like uppers so that they could work for long hours without sleep, then sleeping pills to knock them out before they were fed the uppers again, it’s no wonder Francis Ethel Gumm became drug dependent at the age of 14, and the only wonder is that she managed to survive until the age of 47.

Peter Quilter’s play End Of The Rainbow, a Queensland Theatre Company production at Brisbane’s Playhouse starring (and I use the word advisedly) Christen O’Leary and directed by the phenomenal David Bell, gives us only the last few months of Judy Garland’s tragic life.  And what a production it is, one of the best all-round collaborations of script, acting, directing and technical creativity as has ever been seen in Brisbane.

The old team of lighting guru David Walters and designer magician Bill Haycock have achieved a combination of beauty and audacious ingenuity that left people happy to sit and drink in the setting alone. When O’Leary, for whom the part seems to be pre-ordained, sings her final solo in semi-darkness, a soft light making her almost shimmer like a star in her deep-blue glitter dress, and a few individual snowflakes falling softly to the ground, it was an other-worldly vision, as majestic in its simplicity as the best designers in the world could have achieved, and proved that Haycock and Walters are indeed up there.

The huge elaborate set, Garland’s suite in the Ritz Hotel in London, where most of the action takes place, is cleverly disguised by Tim Roane’s ingenious use of audio-visuals when the action has to be moved to other places; while the live band, led by Andrew McNaughton, are mostly lecturers at Queensland’s Conservatorium of Music, and together play the best kind of ’60s music that Garland sang so well.

O’Leary captures the mood and the tone to perfection — almost perfect but a little rough around the edges, as Garland’s own voice was in her final years, finally failing her altogether as she cracks up during her final concert and loses it altogether. O’Leary is the perfect Garland, capturing her coquettishness, her vibrant sexuality, her vulnerability and her agonies to make this an entirely credible portrayal. You cannot love this Garland, but you can feel for her, and want her to be happy, but also to help herself. She won’t do it, of course, so her final collapse comes as a kind of relief.

Hayden Spencer surprised me, not for the first time, with his versatility, because we’re not used to see him as the typical gay accompanist, but he gets the nuances, and the compassion, just right and proves the truth of the old saying that a gay man can be a woman’s best friend. His is a toned-down subtle performance that doesn’t take the centre stage away from O’Leary, but shines quietly and passionately as he stands there helpless as she courses towards self-destruction with the help of her latest amour.

Anthony Standish gets the ugliness of this self-serving partner just right, showing us the cracks in his façade of loving care that reveal the selfish brute underneath. For all her frailties, the Garland character doesn’t deserve this, but blinded as she is by her need for fame and applause, you can see that she has it coming to her, and the scene where she rejects her pianist’s offer of support for the brute vulgarity of the man she eventually marries brought tears to many eyes.

I can’t speak too highly of this production — not just the subject matter and the performers, but the coming-together of every aspect of stagecraft with no one false note. It’s ensemble work of the highest kind, and is by far the best thing I’ve seen in Brisbane this year. What a pity it’s not going to tour; it’s worth making a special trip to see.

The details: End Of The Rainbow is at The Playhouse, QPAC until March 24. Tickets on the venue website.

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