Judy reaches the end of the rainbow

Tracie Bennett won rave reviews and standing ovations for her portrayal of Hollywood idol Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow in the West End. And it's sure to be the talk of the town when it arrives at Norwich Theatre Royal. EMMA LEE meets her.

The launch of a musical celebrating the life of one of Hollywood's most glamorous women – an icon, no less – deserves an equally glamorous location. And you can't get much more showbiz than the Ivy.

For decades the restaurant in the heart of London's theatreland has been famed for its celebrity client�le.

And it's here that journalists and promoters have gathered to meet Tracie Bennett, the actress and singer who has had audiences in tears and on the edge of their seats with her acclaimed portrayal of Judy Garland in Peter Quilter's End of the Rainbow.

The show, directed by Terry Johnson, wowed critics, played to packed houses and scooped multiple Olivier Award nominations during its six-month run in the West End.

It's now on a 13-week tour of the UK, opening at Norwich Theatre Royal on Monday – and after that Tracie is heading stateside to play Garland on Broadway.

Tracie is a force of nature. She may be tiny in stature, but her big personality easily fills a room.

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This isn't the first time she has played Garland – in fact her association with the actress and singer goes back many years.

Some may remember her performance on the ITV show Stars in their Eyes. She also played her with a twist in the drama The Long Firm.

This is no impersonation, however. When she is on stage, Tracie becomes Garland. And playing her is physically and emotionally demanding.

A play with songs rather than a musical, End of the Rainbow features a number of Garland's most memorable songs, including the Man That Got Away, Come Rain or Come Shine and, of course, Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz.

Tracie puts so much of her heart and soul into the character she says that she cannot remember some performances.

And to be able to do that she needs plenty of stamina and, in her words, lives 'like an athlete' – apart from the odd cheeky glass of Rioja on a Sunday.

The audience reaction has been nothing short of rapturous. It's something that Lancashire-born Tracie finds humbling, despite a career which includes two stints in Coronation Street (she played Sharon Gaskell), parts in top TV shows including Doctors, Casualty, Dalziel and Pascoe, The Bill, Burn It, Where the Heart Is, Heartbeat, Making Out and Boon, and roles in practically every major theatre show you can think of, including La Cage aux Folles, Carousel, Grease, Chicago, Blood Bothers, Les Miserables and Hairspray.

She clearly appreciates every ripple of applause.

'We want to make them laugh or cry. It's not Shakespeare or Chekhov, but it seems to me we've got the essence of the woman,' Tracie says.

'I'd done repertory theatre for 30 years, and I'd never seen them [the audience] standing up and I walked on stage and I was like 'why are you standing up?' I looked behind me, I thought the band were doing something. All that training and rep acting and everything you go through is finally appreciated. I've been thrilled and delighted and not believing it sometimes. But it's not just me at all – I'm delighted for their hard work, my hard work, the crew's hard work, the producers' hard work,' she says.

The show is set in 1968 as Garland attempted to make her comeback and reclaim her crown as the greatest talent of her generation at the Talk of the Town in London.

In addition to a gruelling concert schedule, her drug and alcohol addictions had her in a vice-like grip.

At the time of the launch of End of the Rainbow, footage of Amy Winehouse's ill-fated concert in Belgrade was the talk of the tabloids, and Tracie drew parallels between Winehouse and Garland – two enormously talented women, fighting their demons with the eyes of the world on them.

Just a few weeks later, Winehouse's life was tragically cut short too.

'I feel for them. On the other hand, that's who they are, and they are genius,' Tracie says.

Researching playing Garland, it was clear that she was a complex woman.

'I have to be Judy. You have the icon, and the divorcee. She was quite cruel sometimes – she would mind game people,' Tracie says.

And she had to deal with a level of fame that is hard to comprehend.

'Judy was an icon from the age of 16 thanks to Wizard of Oz. She was an icon to the world. I don't know what that feels like unless you're Beyonc�,' says Tracie.

Next up, Tracie is heading to New York for a Broadway run. And, as an English woman playing an American icon, the pressure is on. And she's more than up for the challenge. 'We're going to Broadway. I can't believe I'm saying that,' she says. 'I have to be brave – there's no art if you have fear, you just have to risk it and hope that they like it. I can only be as honest as I can,' she says.

? End Of The Rainbow is at Norwich Theatre Royal from September 5-10, �22.50-�6.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk