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Interview: latest transfer from London Theatre Workshop 'Through The Mill' hits Southwark Playhouse in July!

Through The Mill is set primarily during the filming of 'The Judy Garland Show' in 1963 and chronicles the production difficulties behind the scenes, intercut with the young Judy Garland's rise to fame through MGM in the 1930s, and her triumphant sell-out concert engagement at the Palace Theatre in the early 1950s. Illustrating why Judy Garland was, and continues to be, one of the great legends of show business history.

We interview Ray Rackham the writer and director of Through The Mill and Belinda Wollaston who plays Judy Garland during her 'Palace Judy' days to find out how the show goes beyond the rainbow, and explores the life of a woman destined for greatness; as loved today as she was when she first made her way along the yellow brick road.


It’s a very exciting time for London Theatre Workshop. Ray, you were reappointed as sole Artistic Director in January and the company recently moved from Fulham to Leadenhall Market. Can you tell us more about London Theatre Workshop and your vision for the company?

Ray: London Theatre Workshop has been in existence since 2013 with me as Artistic Director, then for a short period as co-artistic director. I was reappointed Artistic Director to spearhead our move into the City. We’ve got a fantastic new premises right in the heart of the square mile and I believe at this moment in time we are the only professional studio theatre within the square mile. London Theatre Workshop started through the passion of a number of theatre practitioners who got together and decided that a playground in which to play would be great and as its original founder, naturally, we have a close affinity to musical theatre through my own personal taste. I also felt that London was ripe for a venue that explored the creation of new musical theatre at its heart. In recent years we’ve had my own musical, Apartment 40C, with music from Tom Lees, book and lyrics by myself; we’ve had Yarico which Jodie Kidd produced at our old venue and Through The Mill which is a hybrid between a straight play and musical theatre. That held as the direction for the new venue – to identify, cultivate and challenge new talent and be a safe playground for practitioners to work in.

How did the experience of transferring Apartment 40C to the St James Theatre in 2015 influence your aspirations for Through The Mill?

Ray: It was hugely daunting. We were going from a 60-seat studio theatre in Fulham to one of London’s most respected and loved theatres. The St James Theatre has a wonderful reputation for putting on incredible shows and incredible musicals. Getting through that experience, coming out the other side with all of the lessons that you learn along the way, I think really informed my decision to take my next play, Through The Mill, to an even bigger theatre. It’s a huge compliment to this fantastic company of actors that Southwark Playhouse is very interested. The fact that we had successfully transferred out of the Workshop before, gave me the confidence to say: “Let’s do it again” (to take a lyric from Judy Garland!)

When did Judy Garland first enter your life and why did you decide to create a musical about her life?

Ray: Interestingly, there have been lots of plays, films and biographies about Judy Garland and my fear was – am I just treading already well-trodden ground? I attended a dinner party a few years ago where there were a few people who had worked on Judy’s last ever film, I Could Go On Singing, and I explained to them that I was a huge fan of Liza Minnelli and obviously Judy is her mother. I asked a few questions about Judy because I didn’t really know Judy well at that point, apart from her numerous film appearances. They told me some stories from 1962-1963 and the filming of I Could Go On Singing and it got me thinking – I’ve invested a huge amount of time in my life to theatre and yet I don’t know one of the entertainment industry’s greatest and brightest stars. That sparked my interest, someone who had a personal connection to Judy telling me some stories that I found fascinating. After that I read and watched everything I could about Judy. The advent of YouTube has meant that I could see so many interviews where Judy speaks for herself. I felt that as Judy is a star who has not been with us for a long time, you tend to be informed by what other people think about her. What I found fascinating was listening to Judy speak about herself and her reaction to the way in which she was loved. There’s a wonderful recording of Judy where she sings Just In Time and at the end of the recording she apologises to her audience and says: “I don’t think I’m in very good voice” and the reaction she gets was what she always gets, pure unadulterated love from her audience. Judy says to them: “without you I wouldn’t be alive”. When I heard Judy say that, I knew I wanted to write something about her that celebrates this amazing woman and so tasked myself with finding the triumphs.

Judy Garland has a number of hits and is a well-known, much loved show business star among a certain generation. Do you have to know Judy Garland to appreciate the show or have you purposely written the show with an interesting narrative in itself?

Ray: I started to write it, thinking that I was writing a vehicle about a star that just happened to be Judy Garland. What I was exploring is the concept of someone who has been through the mill; a child star in the films; a concert hall artist. Judy was one of the greatest stars of the 1950’s who remade her career on the stage of the Palace Theatre and The Palladium. Then in the 1960’s Judy found herself on TV. Through The Mill includes that different media of entertainment and explores what that meant to a star. I did fear that what I had created might only appeal to Judy’s fans or people that had known her. What was really interesting in the run at the London Theatre workshop in December was the amount of people who went onto Wikipedia afterwards to search for ‘Judy Garland’. We interested them and intrigued them enough that they wanted to find out more about her. As a writer that is the greatest compliment. I had someone say to me: “I just want to know as much as I can about her life now because she intrigues me”. You always have a responsibility when you are writing about someone who actually existed to tell their story and be truthful to their essence. This includes the sentiment they brought to the world through their life. Having three Judys and working with three enormously talented actresses who just become Judy, enables me to do that.

What was your reasoning for having three actors play Judy Garland?

Ray: Partly a narrative device that as a writer I find it incredibly interesting. My musical, Apartment 40C uses a similar device on character: three couples playing essentially the same couple; so that was the first thing. It’s a peculiar narrative device that I’m finding very exciting to work with. What’s interesting for me are three different personas of Judy: the very young teenage film star; the incredibly powerful concert performing artiste who was basically having the first of many comebacks having been sacked from the movies, and then the television personality who by that time was renowned for her concerts, not so much her movies anymore. Having those three very distinct personalities and re-writing it whilst I was going through the Apartment 40C journey, it became very clear that separating the story with three actresses would be fascinating. And in the rehearsal processes it really is fascinating to see these three amazing actresses play off each other.

Belinda, you’re reprising your role from last year for this transfer to the Southwark Playhouse along with Lucy Penrose and Helen Sheals; what’s it like sharing a role with two other performers?

Belinda: It’s fantastic actually because you get loads of clues from each other. If you feel like you get lost at any point, you have clues all around you from the other actresses. And also there are parts in the show where we try to keep in sync with each other as much as we can, which is great fun. In my career I have never had that opportunity to build those relationships with a cast playing the same character before. It is challenging at times. There are times when it makes you question whether you’re up to scratch, but it is a gift.

Belinda, how much did you know about Judy Garland before you got the part?

Belinda: I grew up loving her; out in the suburbs of Western Australia I would be there in my bathroom trying to imitate her. I would do that with Judy Garland and Disney. I loved The Wizard of Oz, but when I first did the workshop for Through The Mill, I was terribly scared and nervous that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. I didn’t think I knew enough about her. There’s been a period of around 18 months now where I’ve seen so many websites and watched so many YouTube clips, I’ve pilgrimmaged to where she used to live in Chelsea and feel like I know her much more than I did before.

Ray: Judy’s last home where she passed away was just behind Sloane Square. It stayed pretty much as a monument to Judy until just two weeks ago when it got bulldozed down.

Belinda: It’s so sad. They should’ve put a landmark there, she deserves it.

I imagine creating a fictional character and a representation of a real life woman are very different, how did you approach the role and what was the most interesting or challenging part of creating your ‘Palace Judy’ for the production?

Belinda: I just tried to be as truthful as I possibly could. As actors we all want to be truthful, but for me the biggest challenge is not to over-play her and not to give a drag performance of her. I want to portray her honestly, because as much as she was over-the-top in her gestures, she was also incredibly down to earth. I think that’s what made everyone love her so much. Being able to play those two different things is a challenge. For my character ‘Palace Judy’, especially, there are a lot of moments when you see her on The Palace stage in show mode and then she’s backstage where there’s no audience in front of her, so it’s being able to master those changes and doing so with as much honesty as I possibly can.

…and what are you most excited to play with in this staging at Southwark Playhouse now that you’ve got that down?

Belinda: It was such a short rehearsal period when we last ran it over at the London Theatre Workshop in December. We didn’t have a lot of time to do previews like you do on some of the bigger shows. I am looking forward to hopefully being more relaxed and we’re having a lot of new staging…

Ray: The piece has had a fair amount of re-writes since the last production. We’ve added two songs and the text has changed, Belinda’s narrative in particular. Belinda plays opposite Harry Anton who portrays Judy’s third husband, Sid Luft, and she essentially evokes a sense of an almost Tennessee Williams style play in her narrative. Having the space at Southwark and having the ability to find the light and dark in the piece is going to be very interesting.

What an incredible space Southwark Playhouse is and it’s amazing how many musicals have charged the space there since the theatre moved from London Bridge to Elephant and Castle. How are you setting it up the space?

Ray: It’s going to be set in the thrust, so again on three sides. I must be obsessed with the rule of three. The next piece I do has to be a three as well, so then I’ve got a trilogy of threes! Having it on the three sides will hopefully create a really intimate staging. Although the space is so much bigger than we’re used to, it’s going to still evoke that sense of intimacy that the piece screams for. You need to almost feel like you are a voyeur watching. There is a voyeuristic quality to the piece: what’s said in the shadows and what’s said behind the cameras is massively more interesting to me than what’s said in front of them.

Were you inspired by any of Tennessee Williams’s plays when you wrote it, because obviously there’s a similar era and feel to this flawed pedestal placed female character?

Ray: My personal interest, which I think always informs who you are as a writer, are the plays of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and Arthur Miller. One of the things they all write magnificently well about are characters that are flawed, but who are incredibly endearing and for me that sums up Judy Garland. Judy had her flaws, she had her troubles but at heart she was an exceptionally endearing person who we are still talking about today.

Both of you, here’s your opportunity to share all – are there any anecdotes from either of the rehearsal periods that will go down in history or that will stay with you?

Ray: My lasting memory of our production is the first preview back at London Theatre Workshop and watching the whole company perform the final number which is the number that is most synonymous with Judy Garland. Watching Lucy, Helen and Belinda become one. What they created on that night was more than vocal harmony, it was true harmony. For me as a writer seeing your piece and handing it over to a whole bunch of exceptionally talented actors is almost like watching your kids graduate. For me, watching them become Judy as one on all of those different levels and layers was the thing that I will always remember.

Belinda: Almost similar. I will never forget every night before going on stage when I together with the other Judys, Helen and Lucy, had this connection to Judy and we would almost say a prayer to Judy before we went on stage every night, talking to her, as if she is in the room for the show. Especially at the end of the show when we sing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’. I always feel like (and I’ll never forget this moment) looking out into the audience that I’m really connecting to her. That might seem really strange, but for me that’s the thing I remember, this weird connection with her.

That sounds incredibly moving. It doesn’t sound strange because it’s hard not to have that connection when you’re literally embodying someone and their life on stage, especially as you know they existed.

Belinda: Yes, exactly. It’s like when you have a flash memory of something, you close your eyes and you see yourself singing out to the audience with the lights in your face having this connection to her. It’s something that is really special.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add or share with our readers?

Ray: I’ve always been interested in the marriage between the straight play and the musical. What we’re doing with Through The Mill is celebrating that marriage: the wonderful joy of having music in theatre, be that in a musical or in a play that happens to have music, or in our case a play that has over twelve numbers in it. It’s always interesting when we try to describe what Through The Mill is because depending on your taste and what you take from it, is it a musical, or, is it a play? I don’t think we will ever know. But what I am excited about is sharing it with your readers.

Through The Mill runs at Southwark Playhouse from 6th July – 30th July.

Click here for further details.






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Interview with writer Coda Quashie

Interview with Sarah Mann

Interview with Yolanda Mpele

Interview with Howard Barker

Interview with Brian Timoney

Interview with Laura Stevens

Interview with John Sandy

Interview with Philly Greenwood

Interview with Dean Stalham

Interview with Jack McNamara

Interview with Caroline Partridge

Meet People Show artist Gareth Brierley

Interview with George Mann

Meet Phillip Brook, star of Uncle Barry at the Blue Elephant

Interview with Fin Kennedy

Interview with James Graham

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown V

Interview with Cath Whitefield, now appearing at The Gate

Interview with Lavern Archer

Royal Court Announces Autumn Season

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown IV

Marketing Managers on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown III

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown II

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

Arcola to Create World's First Carbon Neutral Theatre

Interview with Nell Leyshon, Writer of Glass Eels at the Hampstead Theatre

A New Start for the Southwark Playhouse

The Mark Shenton Show

Theatre has moved on - whatever we critics think

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