After graduating from Mountview Academy in 2015, Lucy Penrose made her professional debut in the world premiere of Ray Rackham’s Through the Mill at the London Theatre Workshop. For her role as Young Judy, one of three Judy Garlands at different stages in the diva’s life, Penrose was nominated for My Theatre Mates’ #AlsoRecognised Award for London Newcomer of the Year and an Off-West End Theatre Award (“Offie”) for Best Actress. She is now preparing to reprise the role, along with original co-stars Belinda Wollaston (Palace Judy) and Helen Sheals (CBS Judy), as the premiere production transfers to Southwark Playhouse in July.
Tell us about when you got the role for the first run of Through the Mill at London Theatre Workshop.
I’ve always been a massive fan of Judy Garland, if you’ve grown up watching her films, I think it’s impossible to not have a connection with her. I was worried because, in the audition, I was covered in fake tattoos from a show I was doing at the time. I tried to appear Judy-esque but I looked more like Biker Judy. Afterwards, I tried to put the audition out of mind, made difficult by the love I had for the scenes that I had read and my desire for the role. I always try to not get my hopes up, but for this role it was impossible not to. I heard nothing for about a week. Then one morning I was sleeping and my phone rang: I’ve never had a more joyful wake-up call, my agent telling me I was being offered the part. I remember sitting on the train listening to the soundtrack of The Wizard of Oz and boiling over with excitement. I must have looked very odd to the other commuters.
You play one of three Judy Garlands in the show. How does that work?
“Does having thrice the amount of Judy Garland, triple the diva tantrums?” I get asked that a lot when I talk to others about the show. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Helen, Belinda and I work so well together and all we do is laugh. It’s fantastic as a graduate actor to be able to watch them work. It’s one of the most interesting challenges to work with three actresses who need to be comparable to each other and yet balance a distinction in their own Judy.
We all conduct our own research and watch each other so we can create consistency within the character. One of the wonderful happenings is when all three of us are in full Judy mode and instinctively gesture in the same way. Because we are each playing a snapshot of her life, we are able to focus our attention to the finer details and that’s what makes this piece really come to life. We will spend time discussing even the simplest action, such as how she would lift a glass. Unlocking these actions is all part of the process in bringing Judy Garland to the stage.
When we were in the run, audience members who knew Judy personally approached us after the show and complimented the three of us on our truthful and accurate portrayals. One of Judy’s old socialite friends said to me, “that was her, tonight I saw Judy again.” I think that’s the highest compliment anyone can receive.
You were nominated for a My Theatre Mates #AlsoRecognised Award for Newcomer of the Year for the first run. Any message you’d like to send to those who voted for you?
To those who voted for me, thank you, a million times over, I was elated. It’s very scary, as a graduate actor, to come into what is famously one of the most cutthroat industries in the world. Trying to find your feet is difficult, and I’m still finding mine, so the nomination was a massive comfort to me, and a wonderful start in the acting industry.
To have the #AlsoRecognised Awards Newcomer of Year section is a brilliant way to bring confidence to new actors and to welcome them into the fold. In an exciting time when the industry is diversifying and opening its doors, having platforms that recognise the work of both Off West End and West End work encourages exciting new theatre and creatives to come forward. Because the rewards are there, the hard work doesn’t go unnoticed.
What was the main thing you learned, about yourself or Judy Garland, from being in the show last time around?
As I say, I’m still very young in this industry, so I learnt a lot from the first run. Not just about my process as an actor but also about how I work now, as a professional. The main thing I took away from the last run was to know that I’m not alone in the process, to not let the nerves of a show get on top of me. Knowing that you have fantastic co-stars and a wonderful creative team, who are all working towards the same goal, really relieved the pressure for me. Laughter is also the best cure for anything, and our rehearsal room was filled with laughter and love for the play.
Portraying someone else is a big undertaking, portraying someone who actually lived is even more so. I read every biography I could, worked my way through film after film, listened to hours of music, we all did. We owed it to a great woman to make educated decisions in our characterisations. The main thing I learnt about Judy was that her life was one big struggle, but she smiled her way through, a bright person in the face of darkness. Playing despair when playing Judy isn’t accurate. You have to play her warmth and her great love for others.
What’s it like returning to the show now in a new venue?
Excitement doesn’t quite cut it, and experiencing it with the brilliant company makes it all the better. We have such an envisioning creative team, the set designers understand the vision for the play, the essence of Judy. I will be very interested to see what they can up with for the set, because they really can make anything happen. The Southwark Playhouse space will open up huge possibilities both musically and physically for the show, giving us more of a chance to explore this world. Opening up this production to a wider audience and a larger space will have its challenges – as with any transfer, reworking must be done, but it will only pull out more choices, more opportunities that we were unable to go with in the previous space.
Any anecdotes from the previous run or rehearsals to date?
Two of the three Judys glammed up to the nines, having to hide off stage in a toilet cubicle, to avoid ruining the illusion and bumping into the audience. Overhearing debates about whose glamorous fur scarf is whose and many off-stage giggles in the dressing room.
When doing a show about a Hollywood legend there were, and I’m sure many times where I will, step back and think “who on earth do I think I am?”: when complimenting my co-stars performance using words such as ‘darling’, wrapped in a dressing gown surrounded by flowers that were sent backstage. Sometimes Judy can be hard to shake off, especially after investing so much of my life in hers, but I always laugh to myself. You do have to love the glamour of it all.
Do you have any dream roles you’d like to play in future? Or other actors whose careers you’d like to emulate?
The character that made me want to start singing at six years old was Christine Daaé from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of The Opera. So fulfilling a dream from when I was young would be very meaningful. I like characters who have big songs and strong messages – give me that and I am ecstatic. Maggie Smith and Judi Dench are inspirations for my career. When it comes to the job, they are professionals before anything else.I like that as a work mantra.
Anything else you’d like to add?
In my opinion, Through the Mill is just what the industry needs: to see a strong-willed person who we all know, showing that she can take on the world, even if she doesn’t believe it herself. It’s a message to send out now more than ever.
Everyone has an image in their head of Judy Garland, but I think you will be surprised about the real Judy Garland that we portray in key moments of her life. Hopefully, it will leave audiences with motivation and an appreciation for the woman who has left her mark on the world. Ray Rackham has done a brilliant job in this piece, which will leave Judy Garland fans and admirers more inspired than ever.