Theatre review: Frances & Ethel, Oran Mor, Glasgow

BACK in Minnesota, their name was Gumm; but that didn’t last long. When the youngest, Frances, was just 4, the Gumm family moved to California; and in 1935 - with her doting dad Frank and ruthlessly ambitious mother Ethel in attendance - young Judy Garland, aged just 13, was signed by MGM, to begin one of the legendary screen careers of the century.

BACK in Minnesota, their name was Gumm; but that didn’t last long. When the youngest, Frances, was just 4, the Gumm family moved to California; and in 1935 - with her doting dad Frank and ruthlessly ambitious mother Ethel in attendance - young Judy Garland, aged just 13, was signed by MGM, to begin one of the legendary screen careers of the century.

Frances & Ethel | Rating: **** | Oran Mor

Even before MGM designated young Judy as “fat”, though - and offered her some pills that could “help fix that” - Ethel Gumm had perfected the technique of motivating her daughter through a bruising combination of fierce encouragement and withering contempt, particularly for her looks; and it’s this ambiguous, driven relationship that inspires David Cosgrove’s brief and eloquent tribute play, which seems certain to enjoy a longer life after its Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime run this week.

Set in a New York rehearsal room in April 1961, the play features a dazzling star performance from Frances Thorburn as a 38-year-old Judy in fragile health, and facing the biggest concert of her life at Carnegie Hall, but still a great singer, haunted by the ghost of her long-dead mother. In Mary McCluskey’s pitch-perfect production, Ethel is played by Alison Peebles in terrific steely style; all the menfolk, from Louis B Mayer to Judy’s down-at-heel pianist Sal, are played with immense, wise-cracking flair by John Kielty. And if the play seems a little short for its subject - and could certainly use a few more great Garland songs in the superbly-sung finale - this is still a vivid, memorable show, perfectly poised at one of the key turning-points of a great 20th century life.

• Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday