A lavish suite at The Ritz awaits the arrival of Judy Garland. Her Louis Vuitton luggage precedes her; as does her damaged reputation and the high expectations from her adoring fans of yet another comeback. It is a few years after the star’s shambolic Melbourne concert, part of a twelve-day Australian tour that showcased the icon at her very best, and her very worst.

Helen DallimoreHelen Dallimore in End of the Rainbow. Photo © Chris Herzfeld

Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow is a fabled account of the rollercoaster events a few months before Judy Garland’s actual death in 1969, as she embarks on a five-week run of shows at The Talk of the Town (now London’s Hippodrome). Pills and booze are an ever-present threat and the motivations of her recently affianced manager appear questionable. But as the shows commence, the idol’s demons resurface and self-doubt threatens to topple into self-destruction.

Quilter’s tight script is packed with action, pithy one-liners, dark humour and gigantic tantrums, woven neatly between the well and lesser-known aspects of Judy Garland’s life. Between arguments and reflections we learn of celebrity friendships, failed relationships and money troubles.

Elena Carapetis directs End of the Rainbow for State Theatre Company South Australia, in association with the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, with exceptional vision and execution. The centre of our focus is always Judy Garland – depicted here as a giant presence on and off stage. This “backstage musical” transitions seamlessly between hotel suite and show night; each revealing more about the woman, the human being and the performer. The seamless, elegant transition from Judy Garland’s real life to the razzle dazzle of the concert stage is ably aided by sleek design from Ailsa Paterson and clever lighting from Mark Pennington.

Helen Dallimore’s Judy Garland is unmissable. She is captivating as Garland the person and actor, with the perfect accent, lilt, tone, sass, mannerisms and rapier wit. As Garland the singer, her performance is dazzlingly brilliant. Dallimore sings every note with the timbre and vibrato that helped make Garland a superstar, and the expertly delivered passion, frailty, sadness and joy, amidst the fractious, explosive and barely containable character flaws, elevate this to an unforgettable audience experience.

Nic English and Helen Dallimore in End of the Rainbow. Photo © Chris Herzfeld

Soon-to-be husband number five, Mickey Deans is convincingly portrayed by Nic English as desperation leads him to again become an enabler. Stephen Sheehan as Anthony Chapman brings a quiet, gentle charm to the support role of pianist and friend, and Chapman’s terse relationship with Deans adds another layer of interest. A nod to Eddie Morrison as BBC Interviewer whose humour lent a welcome release to the tension of Garland’s derailing train.

Musical Director Carol Young leads an exemplary six-piece band whose precise and impassioned performances complement the main attraction with the aid of Andrew McNaughton’s quality arrangements.

This is a delightful, terrifying, and incredible tale that questions the price of fame and the cost of addiction. Delivered at an ideal pace, the build to the finale is a gritty, sad, heart wrenching and hopeful rollercoaster ride worth taking.

End of the Rainbow plays at the Royalty Theatre, Adelaide, until June 22