THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD TO THE WISDOM OF FANDOM
“Sometimes” says the author-heroine of this extraordinary piece, “things can be richer if they don’t add up”. Take that on board and it helps. It also helps to know that this is Amanda Whittington’s imaginative adaptation of a memoir by the novelist Susie Boyt. Who – full disclosure – is a friend I love. However, so strange is this enterprise that I can in honesty lay that aside. If I had hated the show, I would pretend the computer crashed tonight. I didn’t.
Like the book, it chronicles Boyt’s lifelong obsession with Judy Garland, and how it fed her own ability to deal with life. Not a simple life: as one of Lucien Freud’s many children her father was a starry, though beloved , public figure living for his art (“7.3 miles away” says a child’s proud accuracy). Her mother ran an antique clothes shop, and the young Susie was a sensitive creature, weeping at lonely-looking groceries in a trolley, forever told to ‘toughen up”. She worked at her ballet and dreamed of the musical stage, but a teacher said “You’ll have to shift a heck of a lot of weight before THAT’s a possibility”. At Oxford, a close friend died suddenly, torpedoing the already unhappy student.
Through all this her consolation was Judy Garland. At first just the voice, soaring with joyful simplicity through the wildest lyrical joys and griefs. Later, as she learned about the exploitation, addiction and decline behind the glitter, Judy was another kind of inspiration, especially in grief. “Courage is the moral arm of glamour..when you’re here, all the longing is cut on the bias, and sparkles!” The adult Susie sought out her idol’s history, memorabilia and children: there is a marvellously funny staging of her real attempt to interview Liza Minnelli without succumbing to the enemy of all journalism, a slavish desire to be her friend (or failing that, the guard and carrier of her spare eyelashes.)
Through the show, directed with panache and plenty of spectacle by Kath Rogers, Boyt is played with a sweet straightforwardness by Faye Elvin, at first an eager and lumpen teen, gradually growing to sparklier maturity. Judy (and Liza) sing, dance, argue, and fling temperamentally around in an uncanny performance by Sally Ann Triplett. A three-piece band becomes a chorus of Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow; or at one point, touchingly, the ‘60s London cabbies whose shelter the sleepless Judy invaded in her restless drugged nocturnal misery.
Gradually, Boyt’s themes unfold. Like a shaft of wisdom about girlhood, in an early conversation between the macaroon-eating teenager who shyly dreams of showbiz and the one who was forced into it and fed amphetamines to keep her slim. “When you spend your teenage years on diets, your desires become contorted”. The core message, though – an unusual one, and therefore worth hearing – is that fandom is a good thing, not a delusion: “hero-worship is an emotional Olympics”, energizing, inspiring, making you examine your own desires and qualities. Boyt’s sensitive caution about not giving herself away or being a nuisance is countered by the Judy who called stagefright “a lovely tension!” and lived on the edge. In imaginary conversations the fan sometimes longs to emulate, but equally often to console: “I wasnt there for your greatest triumphs or your greatest despairs, but you were there for mine”.
It is an oddity: a tripod precariously balancing selfconscious memoir, tribute show and philosophical lecture. But there is a warmth, an eccentricity, and a sorrow at the eternal paradox of how a star who feels herself to be a void can fill the emptiness in her listeners, offering comfort she never finds. And a final explosion of showmanship asks us, with all humility, to consider allowing the strings of our own hearts to go zing. So yes, mine did.
Box Office: 0115 941 9419 to 15 Feb