I Loved Lucy, Arts Theatre

I haven’t given this show a star rating, because it’s an odd one to review: a truly unspectacular show in itself, but with an outstanding central performance.

There’s a particular species of Hollywood or theatrical biography in which a well-loved female star is befriended by a much younger man, they become constant companions, and a claustrophobic, generally codependent relationship forms. The star is usually in the last decade or so of their life and the young man is invariably a fan struggling to make his way as a writer. The biographies are generally a combination of anecdotes, eccentricities. Start and loyal subject always seem to fall out when the star’s health really declines, often as the result of some pushing by family members concerned about undue influence and protective of The Will.

I Loved Lucy is based on one such biography. Patrick, our narrator, is a lifelong Lucille Ball fan who is lucky enough to be distantly related by marriage to her second husband, Gary Morton, which leads to him developing a friendship with the lady herself. Patrick plays backgammon, visits her in Hollywood, acts as her PA when she is New York, accompanies her to movies, and watches helplessly as she stumbles through her final TV series.

None of this is interesting. What is interesting is how perfectly Sandra Dickinson captures Ball – her voice, her energy, her biting wit. When Patrick starts tediously – and endlessly – recounting the plots of I Love Lucy episodes, Dickinson doesn’t roll her eyes. She stares at him, as if waiting for him to get over his bout of verbal diarrhoea. It’s little touches like this that make her performance so captivating- and worth watching. There’s also a healthy dose of vulnerability: mixed in with the big, impressive tales about her Hollywood friends is disappointment about the failure of her first marriage and the compromise of her second. Genuine or fabricated, Dickinson plays the conflict well.

The show drags somewhat. There are only so many Lucy anecdotes one can sit through before the novelty palls. The timeline is inconsistent both with history and within the  play itself. Patrick is not an enjoyable character or a particularly engaging narrator. The best he has to recommend him is that unlike many similar biographers he always had a steady job, career and life of his own away from his celebrity friend.

The Arts Theatre seems to specialise in this kind of biodrama – in the past it has put on shows about Judy Garland, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – and the performances are always well-attended so there must be a market for them. See it if you love Ball, or Dickinson, or both. Otherwise, see something else.

Review: Judy! Arts Theatre, Covent Garden

6/10

Judy! is the latest in the procession of those shows about Judy Garland that pop up every now and then, the most notable among them being Over the Rainbow which had most Garland fans wetting themselves with excitement. This is not that show.

The basic premise  – you can’t call it a plot – around which Judy! operates is that the audience is watching Garland at three stages of her career: the action weaves in and out of the lives of Teen Judy (Lucy Penrose), Palace Judy (Belinda Wollaston) and CBS Judy (Helen Sheals).

Sheals is magnificent – by far the best thing in the show – and captures all the fascinating, almost dangerous vulnerability that made Garland’s television performances so compelling. She quips her way through the recording of her TV series, fighting over its format, and scaring off producers while grappling with unscrupulous agents and Sidney Luft’s debts. Sheals has clearly both studied her subject meticulously and made the character and performance her own, allowing her to really enjoy giving us ‘her’ Garland. Her Judy is world-weary, but still sassy. The Judy captured by the likes of Rufus Wainwright and watched by millions of fans on YouTube. I was enthralled.

Teen Judy (Lucy Penrose) has yet to make her big break, is being made miserable by her mother and the studio for not being enough like Shirley Temple and only has an older, sympathetic gay colleague on whose shoulder to cry. Foreshadowing, for those unfamiliar with Garland lore, her alleged penchant for marrying gay husbands. Penrose’s physical performance can feel a bit stiff and overdone at times, but she captures Garland’s awkward, self-conscious “ugly duckling” phase beautifully, with jerky, overly theatrical movements. Her segment has the closest thing to a plot, as we see her transition from an outsider trying to get a studio contract, through relentless touring and finally into The Girl Who Will Be Dorothy.

By comparison, Palace Judy (Belinda Wollaston) feels like the weak link of the trio. This may be because hers is the least easily defined Judy. Sheals and Penrose seem to really know who they’re playing – and know her inside out. Wollaston seems uncertain, possibly because her character has nothing much to define her as Judy except the songs. In fairness to her, this is mostly a failure of the script. Palace Judy’s moments on stage are tedious and rambling, with nothing much happening except for emotional outbursts and declarations of love for Sid Luft. Wollaston never seems quite comfortable in the role, as if aware that her material isn’t the best. It doesn’t help that she is considerably taller than the other two Judys on stage, effectively breaking the magic of the show’s central conceit.

Fortunately for all concerned, the audience is there for neither plot nor script nor acting. It matters little that we learn nothing new or unexpected about Judy Garland from this show, or that in places the caricature (domineering stage mother! Gay father! Gay husbands!) is almost painful to watch. This show is all about the music. And on that score (!) the show delivers in buckets.

Supporting cast members drift from centre stage at the end of their scenes to pick up an instrument and join the band. Each Judy has her big numbers, with the fact that Garland reinterpreted many of her most famous songs numerous times throughout her career incorporated as the Judys join each other on stage to harmonise on favourites like Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart. Favourites like The Trolley Song are balanced with lesser-known gems and this is where the stars of the show really shine. Penrose and Sheals excel at bringing to life the energy of Garland’s early and late performances, leaving those in the audience born too late longing for the experience of seeing the real thing. It’s in the final part of the show that Wollaston proves her worth – and explains her casting – by giving an energising finale performance in top hat and tails. It’s hard not to be thrilled while watching these songs sung by a trio giving their best Judy Garland. Every time the music starts, the audience is mesmerised, not least by the fantasy of experiencing a fraction of what it would have been like to see Judy herself.  The dramatic action, on the other hand, instantly breaks the spell. I left feeling lifted by the music, but wishing the script had worked harder to match the musical exuberance. Not to mention wondering where I’d hidden my well-worn CD of Judy’s Carnegie Hall performance.