Cabaret Festival Review: End of the Rainbow

Peter Quilter’s play examines the last days of a true STAR, Judy Garland.

By
Overall
4.5

Presented by State Theatre Company in association with Adelaide Cabaret Festival
Reviewed 4 June, 2019

The high domed ceiling of the old Royalty Theatre witnessed a biting parable about the dark side of fame as Peter Quilter’s play, End of the Rainbow unfolded tonight. Those red ruched velvet curtains covering the Juliet balconies each side of the huge proscenium give a sense of weary whorehouse glamour to it all, while the brilliant design work of Ailsa Paterson re-jigs the proportions of the stage by providing four matched proscenium-style arches, as wide as the stage but not as high, which recede back, leading the eye into the depths. Not only were these proportions reminiscent of film ratio, they also lent a sense of intimacy and domesticity to the high drama of Judy Garland’s last days.

Quilter’s play is essentially a three-hander, with Garland, her young fiancé, and her faithful old pianist locked in a series of moral conundrums to do with duty, fame, psychological need, financial necessity and loyalty. Judy Garland is played by renowned Australian actor/singer Helen Dallimore. Before she enters the stage, impeccably dressed and groomed, we hear her. A barrage of rapid-fire speech, complaining, cajoling and castigating, announces her presence. Dallimore’s vocal energy is critical to this play’s success; not only does she need to sing like Garland (and she does); Quilter’s dense text asks for a symphonic range of spoken text, from the gentlest regretful murmur to the heights of histrionics. Under Elena Carapetis’ careful direction, Dallimore’s Miss Garland runs the gamut with impressive variations of speed and pace. And her articulation never falters. It’s a tour de force for an actor, and Dallimore brings the addicted, driven Garland to shocking life. Yes, she looks like Garland; her makeup and clothes are works of art in themselves. But the triumph for Carapetis’ direction and Dallimore’s performance is that we learn to love and pity this ungovernable woman while understanding the causes behind her downfall.

The story begins as Garland and two men book into the Ritz Hotel in London as she begins a six-week residency at The Talk of the Town nightclub. The two men are her fiancé (soon to be her fifth husband), Mickey Deans, played by Nic English, and her British accompanist, Anthony, played by Stephen Sheehan. Although the show is all about Judy, with these two men simply helping to contextualise the train-wreck, Sheehan’s performance stands out as graceful, sensitive and intelligently restrained. His portrayal of her accompanist extends as far as excellent playing on the grand piano which is part of the set. Sheehan’s wealth of training shows in his physical understanding of Anthony’s role. His work enhances the pathos of the story, constantly reinforcing Dallimore’s work, without ever pulling focus. English capably performs the less subtle role of New York nightclub owner Deans. He rages, he wheedles, he lays down the law, but the writing of the piece subtly questions Deans’ place in Garland’s life.   

There’s a band behind the curtained backstage wall. And what a band. Led by unflappable Musical Director Carol Young, they all deserve a mention – Eddie Morrison (bass), Warren Heading (trumpet), Tom Pulford (reeds), Thomas Voss (tenor trombone), and Steve Todd (drums). When the scene of the play shifts from Judy Garland’s suite at the Ritz to the Talk of the Town nightclub, the curtains part, and the band plays, together with clever Mister Sheehan on piano. The arrangements (Andrew McNaughton) are meticulously scaled to the theatre size, the feel of the production, and the voice of Helen Dallimore.  Young shows herself to be a formidable MD for theatre. Her tempi are consistently appropriate, and she and her band produce exhilarating playing which constantly supports Dallimore’s superb singing.

Design plays a huge part in this production. Not only is the set a joy, but costuming is also excellent. Lighting design (Mark Pennington) is calculated to enhance the drama without turning it into a “snap-to-full-state” musical. Andrew Howard, as sound designer, faced multiple challenges. His skill manages to balance a solo voice and a six-piece show-band within a high-ceilinged old barn of a building, while contriving to give us a sense of intimate complicity in both the scenes in the hotel room and on the nightclub stage.

Despite all the care and thought lavished on the many complex components of this polished gem of a production, it is its final moments that live in the memory. Weary to the bone, artificially buoyed on uppers, Garland reluctantly heads towards her next concert performance. With a face bruised by emotional extremes and pharmacological abuse, she quietly says, “I’m always on my own up there”. Elena Carapetis, Helen Dallimore, Stephen Sheehan, Nic English and Carol Young together remind us that theatre is, at heart, a blood sport.

Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson

Rating out of 5:  4½ stars. –  Dramatic star-power

Venue:  Royalty Theatre
Season:   31st May – 22nd June, 2019
Duration:  2 hours 30 mins (including interval)
Tickets:  $84.00 / $74.00
Bookings:  www.adelaidecabaretfestival.com.au

Photo credit: Chris Herzfeld

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