Lisa Maxwell stars in the End of the Rainbow at the Opera House Manchester

Lisa Maxwell as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow. Opera House Manchester

Lisa Maxwell as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow. Opera House Manchester - Credit: Archant

As a society, we have a deeply divided fascination with fame. We build people up as untouchable, but get a morbid thrill when they turn out to be as broken as we are. Ben Hanson writes.

Lisa Maxwell

Lisa Maxwell - Credit: Archant

End of the Rainbow revels in that double-think. The hit musical, which runs at the Manchester Opera House from 3 to 7 May, follows Judy Garland, fallen angel of Hollywood’s golden age and enduring gay icon, as she battles addictions and attempts to resurrect her career.

‘We see her offstage at The Ritz hotel in 1968,’ says star Lisa Maxwell, ‘where she and fiancé Mickey Dean, her fifth, are broke and having to duck the manager; but they believe this comeback will change everything.’

But Lisa hasn’t received rave reviews just for premarital bickering; the offstage action is intercut with her blistering vocal performances as Judy, performing at Talk of the Town, the London theatre-restaurant venue where Judy performed for five weeks from late December 1968.

‘Someone said to me that it’s like a one-woman show, and in a way that’s true. We’re a happy team and it’s an absolutely brilliant cast, but I’m never off-stage except for a quick costume change. And I have to perform the songs Judy’s fans are hoping to see – all in her trademark style.’

Gary Wilmot as Anthony, Lisa Maxwell as Judy Garland and Sam Attwater as Mickey in End of the Rainbo

Gary Wilmot as Anthony, Lisa Maxwell as Judy Garland and Sam Attwater as Mickey in End of the Rainbow - Credit: Archant

Judy Garland is a strange target for adulation - she apparently behaved appallingly to the people who tried to help her - and neither playwright Peter Quilter nor Lisa are afraid to paint her honestly. ‘I absolutely love Judy, and I read every book, watched every movie, trying to get her intonations and mannerisms down,’ Lisa says. ‘When you really understand the motivations of someone as layered as she was, you can’t judge them.’

Following suit, Rainbow is both a celebration for Judy’s legions of loyal fans, and a tender examination of the damage celebrity can do.

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‘I was a fan already, but playing Judy has made me realise how extraordinary she was,’ Lisa tells me. ‘The things she had to survive… I don’t think she stood a chance, and yet she became a bona fide legend. And this was a time when fame was a by-product of having a genuine talent, unlike today where it’s a case of getting into extreme circumstances and humiliating yourself. I’ve had to learn to do the things that Judy could do, and it was flippin’ hard.’

Lisa’s opinions won’t be popular with reality stars or YouTube sensations, but they’re born from personal experience of the destructive power of performing from childhood. ‘I never suffered in the way I know people can, but I’ve been acting since I was eleven,’ she tells me. ‘It’s very easy to equate love with the admiration people show you on stage. I did that to a certain degree, and Judy to a much more destructive one; I was in my thirties before I realised people had to actually like me for me.’

But audiences shouldn’t expect a pity party: ‘Judy was a survivor, and her coping mechanism for tough times was to be funny, so she’s constantly cracking one-liners,’ Lisa says. ‘It’s a very, very special play: you get the songs, you get the drama and you get the comedy.’

Lisa, of course, is known for multi-years stints on ITV’s The Bill and Loose Women, but today she picks the proscenium arch over being a personality: ‘TV was wonderful to me, and was terrific to be a part of two things people love so much, but the theatre is where you hone your trade,’ she says. ‘You’re in complete control of your character for the next two hours,’ and - unlike Judy’s cautionary tale - ‘all the decisions, all the choices, are yours.’

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