A LETTER FROM LONDON: Judy Is Conjured in End of the Rainbow, Plus RSC at the Roundhouse and Sincerely Noel

Special Features   A LETTER FROM LONDON: Judy Is Conjured in End of the Rainbow, Plus RSC at the Roundhouse and Sincerely Noel
 
In this month's column spotlighting London theatre, we witness Tracie Bennett's stunning turn as a late-career Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow.

Tracie Bennett
Tracie Bennett Photo by Nobby Clarke

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Like all theatre freaks, I get jumpy if I'm not sitting in the dark every evening waiting for the non-existent curtain to go up. Other people love Christmas and New Year; I hate it, because there are no first nights for weeks and, what does open here in London are children's shows, known as pantos. Thank goodness that's over, then, for another year and we're launched into a busy season again.

The Royal Shakespeare Company reopened their flagship theatre in Stratford upon Avon this past summer after a massive and highly successful rebuild with a series of glorious new productions. I spent most of the summer up a mountain in Colorado writing a book and so missed both the new theatre and its productions, which bothered me, but there wasn't much I could do about it from a distance of 5,000 miles. And, voila, turns out I didn't miss anything after all.

In a flurry of activity, the RSC has now brought its wares to London and installed them at the Roundhouse in Hampstead where they look impressive and give a whole new aspect to some plays we thought we knew well. I remember the Roundhouse — once a turn-around for railway engines at the end of the line — as an experimental space which, during the '60s, was home to what were then known as Happenings. These were events which were mostly unplanned and involved, I recall, an excessive amount of nudity, swear-words, simulated sex, guitars, shoulder-length hair (on the men), and a serious purpose which somehow got subsumed in the general anarchy and amateurism. I suspect today we'd find it all very tame but then it was cutting edge and very shocking.

Now, the Roundhouse is a stunning and well-planned arts center which has joined forces with the RSC, just as the Armory in New York will later this year, to provide a handsome backdrop for plays as different as As You Like It and Julius Caesar. Inevitably, some of these Shakespearean gems are better than others and, when you're planning your July Shakespeare orgy, don't miss the Romeo and Juliet with its properly young and callow pair of lovers, or the bombastic Julius Caesar, or the conundrum that is The Winter's Tale. We've had something of an orgy ourselves here in London with a fabulous King Lear by Derek Jacobi at the Donmar, and a beautifully judged Hamlet from Rory Kinnear at the National.

Tracie Bennett
photo by Nobby Clark

One of the joys of the springtime, though, is that, to borrow from a famous Judy Garland title, a star is born. In fact, not really, because Tracie Bennett, who gives the performance of her lifetime — and of the season — in Peter Quilter's End of the Rainbow, was known to theatregoers before she burst in on our consciousness with this breakout role. She had won two Olivier Awards, the British equivalent of a Tony, as supporting actor and we already knew she could sing from a number of well-received performances in West End musicals. She was a known quantity. So, why, then, are we all so amazed by the Tracie Bennett of End of the Rainbow? Because we had thought of her as a good, solid actor/singer but definitely not a star. And she is.

In End of the Rainbow, with scarcely an off-stage moment, she plays Judy Garland in the last few weeks of her life before she died in London hotel room. She rages, she bellows, she whispers, she begs, she loves, she hates, she sings, and she yells at the hotel managers who have the temerity to ask her to pay her tab. She grooms yet another husband, her last, and torments yet another pianist and, by the end, we remember why she was one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived.

I saw her live, at the London Palladium, and years later wrote a book about her. Take it from me, Tracie Bennett so closely embodies the woman I remember in body, voice and emotional intensity, that she is, at times, almost painful to watch. This is an unmissable performance and if you come to London without seeing it, you'll regret it.

KT Sullivan

London's newest — oh, let's be honest, only — cabaret room, The Pheasantry on the King's Road, is open and hosted its first American show in early January. The New York cabaret diva, KT Sullivan, was front and center in a charmingly haphazard set called Coloured Lights after the Kander and Ebb song from The Rink, first sung by Liza Minnelli. She was, as always, quirky and joyous, effortlessly showing aspiring British singers how it's done. It's not easy to hold a room with nothing to help you but a pianist — the estimable New York musician Jon Weber — and a few, well, colored lights. Command of an audience in these intimate surroundings requires an iron nerve, an encyclopedic knowledge of repertoire, oh yes, and a lot of talent. Sullivan involved every fan in the room in every song, understanding that, for the magic to work, she must be on their wavelength — judging their reaction to the words and music, and merging it with her own. It was a glamorous crowd, London cabaret mavens, all desperate to be back where the songs have words and the words have music. I was, as I always am, skeptical when told that there was a new Noel Coward show in town. Not another, I thought, privately, as I dragged myself to Riverside Studios to see Alistair McGowan, a television presenter not even known for his singing or acting skills, perform a two-person show (with singer Charlotte Page). My ennui is honestly come by. My late husband, Sheridan Morley, was Noel Coward's biographer and literary executor so I have spent much of my life at compilation shows of Coward's work. It is a pleasure to report that this one, Sincerely Noel, headed for New York later this year, is excellent. McGowan, clearly a Coward devotée, has found some sketches and poems which haven't seen the light of day for years, if ever, and gives them a fresh twist. He performs them with brio and the kind of wit that Coward himself would have applauded. He will, I think, be a great success in New York.

(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)

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Alistair McGowan and Charlotte Page in <i>Sincerely Noel</i>
Alistair McGowan and Charlotte Page in Sincerely Noel Photo by Andrew Meredith
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