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Guest blog: Ray Rackham: “Going Beyond the Rainbow”

Ray Rackham

Ray Rackham

Picture it, 25th December, nineteen-eighty-something. Whilst the rest of my family were either falling asleep in front of the television, or arguing over a rather heated game of Trivial Pursuit; the pre-pubescent, spoilt, incredibly precocious younger version of me was watching my increasingly frustrated father attempt get my Christmas present to work; a portable colour television. They were all the rage in nineteen-eighty-something, and I was the only child on Middleton Street who had one.

After what seemed like an eternity; white noise was replaced by a distant sound of strings, and the television static faded to a grainy, almost sepia hue. I was devastated. I wanted full on “Goonies” inspired, He-Man and She-Ra technicolour. What I had was a young girl, wandering around a barn yard, in black-and-white (my tastes were not as developed to differentiate the sepia), singing about all the world being a hopeless jumble. Christmas was, for me at least, ruined.

But then, I heard the now incredibly familiar Over the Rainbow, with its bold, opening leap straight up an octave from Middle C, juxtaposed with darker, underlying chords to offset the apparent schmaltz of the melody, and I was hooked.

“Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I’ve heard of once in a lullaby”.

Transfixed with that Christmas day memory, I continued through my childhood, and very much into adulthood, looking for that technicolour fantasy land, “where troubles melt like lemon drops”. I believe I found it, in the many school plays, attempts at amateur dramatics, and every time I got up to sing a song (or, as my grandmother would say, “do a turn”). My very own technicolour was to come from Fresnel lanterns, home-made star cloths and smoke machines. From the theatre!

Fast forward to two-thousand-and-something. I had just recently closed my production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins at the Pleasance Theatre, and had just accepted the position as Artistic Director of the soon to be formed London Theatre Workshop. I was also trying my luck at being a burgeoning librettist lyricist (a passion that resulted in my contribution to the musical Apartment 40C), and translating a 1980s film to stage (a passion that resulted in very little!). One might safely say that I had found the place where happy little bluebirds fly, and it was in the professional theatre. Having been invited to a very ‘Sloaney’ dinner party, where I was being my usual self, dominating the cocktail conversation (like a cross between Woody Allen, Liberace and James Corden), I found myself lucky enough to be sat next to an elderly producer who had worked on the movie “I Could Go on Singing”.

Judy! By Ray Rackham

“Of course, it was Judy’s last movie”

“Judy who?”

“Are you kidding me?”

This wonderfully caustic and acerbic lady then proceeded to teach me, chapter and verse, everything and anything a self-respecting theatre geek should know about the late, great, Judy Garland.

“Oh, you mean Liza Minnelli’s mum!”

She didn’t talk to me for the rest of the evening.

But what she did do was instil an absolute hunger to find out more about this deeply troubled, yet gorgeously triumphant human being, who was taken tragically too soon just around the corner from where I had been dining. On my way home, I rather coincidentally stumbled across the mews house on Cadogan Lane, where over forty years earlier Judy had died. And by coincidence I meant that I had jumped in a cab and had asked the driver to take me there. Even in the romanticised setting of the glow of a London street lamp, and my possibly having had one too many cherry brandies at dinner, it was clear that the tiny mews house had seen better days. The paintwork on the door was peeling off, I remember some brown tape had been placed across an upstairs window, and a solitary Christmas bauble could be seen from another, even though it was the middle of April. Overall, the place seemed to exist in a world of faded glamour. Forgotten and unloved. The garage door was covered in hardboard, as if there was some kind of building work going on behind it. Maybe the new owners were restoring it to its former glory? Maybe there has been a break-in? The overall shabbiness of the building lead me to believe that the former was implausible, and the latter inevitable.

I felt an overwhelming feeling of sadness. Where was the blue plaque? Where were the garlands of flowers, or cards of heartfelt tribute? Where was the love? I may have been forty or more years late to the memorial, but where were the fans? I’d never felt sadder for someone I didn’t know, and never more so alone. As I started to leave, a faint glimmer of light caught my eye, reflecting from the shine of the London street lamp. It came from the temporary hardboard garage door. On second glance, I realised that scrawled on the door, in purple glitter pen, were the words “if happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why can’t I?”

Upon further inspection, it became clear that every inch of hardboard had a comment scrawled across in.

“We love you Judy”

“JG – always in my heart”

“I still believe in the rainbow”

Immediately, I started to think of my own place in the world, my love of the theatre; the fantasy, technicolour world where you can forget your troubles and get happy. I believe in that world; and a huge part of the Judy Garland narrative, however you dress it, represents that. It was at that moment that I began to see Judy not a person whose sole legacy to the entertainment industry was of trouble, heartache and pain; but of skill, talent and determination, and most importantly of love.

So what if in her later years she cracked on that ambitious leap straight up the octave from Middle C in her signature song? Were the countless tales of pills and liquor all that was actually interesting about this incredibly beguiling woman? Why do we, almost a part of our DNA, like to wallow in the pain, when there remains so much to celebrate? It was at that moment I decided to write a play about Judy. I had for many months been working on a piece about stardom, and by the time I had got home that night the two ideas had morphed into one.

And now, that same show opens at The Arts Theatre in London’s West End, on May 16th, 2017. Having been workshopped and produced at the London Theatre Workshop in December 2015, where I am still, very proudly, Artistic Director; and then at Southwark Playhouse in 2016; it makes me very happy to say that in 2017 Judy Garland is back in town, with three actresses playing her, at the same time, a stone’s throw away from the Talk of the Town; where the actual Judy played her last London gig. I certainly never expected my show to go from 60 seats to the West End in eighteen months. Some might say it’s a bit like a Mickey and Judy film. Sometimes little bluebirds do fly.

I hope to see you there.

Oh, and the Liza Minnelli gag found its way into the first draft, and has been there ever since.

PS: Cadogan House that Ray mentions in the article has since been torn down.

FIVE WEEK WEST END SEASON SUMMER 2017
Venue: Arts Theatre,
6-7 Great Newport St, London WC2H 7JB
Dates: Tues, 16 th May to Sat, 17 th June 2017
Time: 7.30pm (Thurs & Sat Matinees – 2.30pm)
(extra Matinees Tues 6 th & 13 th June)
Box Office: 020 7836 8463
Online: artstheatrewestend.co.uk

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Ray Rackham: ‘I won’t read a bad review twice; I’ve not come that far!’

Ray Rackham

Ray Rackham

As he brings Judy Garland to Southwark Playhouse the director of the glorious Through The Mill talks about casting, the circumstances of his own death – and social injustices.

Hello Ray! Through The Mill is about to open at Southwark Playhouse. How is it looking?
We’ve just had our press night and, to coin a Judy phrase, things are going marvellously. I don’t think any of us, cast, creative and production, have ever worked so hard, but when you get a full standing ovation on your opening previews, and then in each performance in our opening week, it’s strangely re-energising. That being said, I feel like I could sleep for a fortnight!

Do you read reviews of your work?
I never did as an actor or director, I felt that it was unnecessary. I came to realise it was actually because I don’t take criticism particularly well. My career evolving of late into writing, I find reviews more interesting than terrifying now. What do people get from the work? What points am I making that aren’t translating? As a writer, I think you innately become more self-critical because your responsibility is to provide clarity and simplicity in the form, however beautiful you wish your dialogue to be. That being said, I won’t read a bad review twice; I’ve not come that far!

How did you start out in this business?
I tried collecting art, and that didn’t work. I tried collecting antiques, and that didn’t work. I tried acting, and that didn’t work. In fact, a rather well known, but now late, casting director told me, at the age of twenty, to come back in twenty years time when there will be plenty of roles for me. When I had more than a few years to go until that time, I thought I would give directing a crack. And it worked. Writing came as a natural successor. I’ve got four years to really nail it, or you may see me playing “affable, dumpy towns person 4” in a musical near you!

What’s your favourite Quality Street?
The eponymous Green triangle! Anyone who says otherwise is not to be entirely trusted.

Where were you – and what was your reaction – when you discovered you’d been nominated for a Broadway World and Off-West-End Theatre Award?
Well, there have been a few, but alas I’m always the bridesmaid and never the bride. I don’t recall them all, but I do remember the first. I was congratulating everyone else and had started voting online when I saw my name for Ordinary Days. I won’t say if I voted for myself, but I’d like to thank that one person who did. I have a feeling he’d be tall, handsome and exceptionally witty. A regular Noel Coward!

How did you celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday in June?
Like our glorious Majesty, I celebrate my own birthday twice, so I had a few friends around for a slice of cake and a spot of narcissism. I met the Queen once, she complimented me on my hat. I replied it was from Moss Bros, and wasn’t bad for a hire job. I was to learn she was actually talking to Esther Rantzen, who was stood beside me.

If you could eliminate one social injustice a year, each year for three years, which would you choose and in what order?
I think love will always be the answer to injustice. If we all just loved each other more, and celebrated, supported, accepted; well all types of social injustice would lessen overnight, and we’d all be a tonne happier. But, sadly, that seems less likely each and every passing day. So my plan would be Poverty, Discrimination (in ALL its forms) and Classism. It’s so sad that, all these years after the introduction of incredible social reform under a post Second World War government, that there’s still a establishment snobbishness throughout the political elite. I often think the world would be better run if the world leaders had spent some time down the Upper Street launderette with my Great Nana Ada, my Nan, and my Aunt Yuni.

Who’s the best Theatre Director?
I’m not answering that question. No, don’t make me!

Do you spend a lot of your time thinking about how much of your life you have left?
All the time. If my horoscope were ever to tell me I was going to meet a tall dark stranger, I’d withdraw all of my money from my bank account, stock up on gin, fly myself to the Bahamas and await the Grim Reaper. I’ve never written a bucket list for that reason; in doing so you’re more or less contracting to shuffle off at some point. So, whatever time I have remaining, I want to fill it with being good at doing what I want to do. And maybe getting paid for it!

What do you look for when you are casting a show?
Talent and Timeliness.

Who are the last four people that you called on the telephone?
I am renowned for never answering my phone. Because I spend so much time in the theatre, my phone is usually always on silent mode. So I’ve just looked at the last four calls I’ve missed. The answer? Mother, mother, mother and mother.