Interviews

Holly Penfield at the RVT: A friend of Dorothy

Singer Holly Penfield is back at the RVT this Thursday and this time she will perform her tribute to a legend of stage and screen, Judy Garland. Here she explains why Ms Garland’s tempestuous life and beguiling songs continue to fascinate her.

Hi Holly, how are you? What have you been up to so far this year? 

Sadly I was head banged by a dog in the park and broke my leg in December and have been hop along Holly ever since. I still managed to do a few gigs, one in particular in Rome, mostly from a wheelchair à la Bette Midler style, only I didn’t have a mermaid tail. It was hilariously fun.

When did you last perform at the RVT and how did it go?

I did my Rhythm of Life show last November and it was the best and most satisfying gig of my life. I’m beginning to understand my power after many years of searching. Some people feel that at a certain point they should calm down a little but my heart is still full of thousands of songs, dances, comedy, and surreal costumes and hats ideas. That’s just how I’m made. My father was still serenading the nurses and doctors on his deathbed. I could go on singing ‘til the cows come home.

How would you describe your Judy Garland show – will you be talking about her life as well as singing?

Yes, I’ll be singing and storytelling. I’m in a journey with her right now that is quite intense. It’s easy to embrace all the beauty and enlightened talent that made me love her deeply as a little girl, but now as an adult I’ve followed her down the dark alleys and shadows of her life. This woman did not go lightly in her great gifts as an entertainer, her personal triumphs and failures, and her will to live and die was often at the same time. But there is an explanation, which I explore. It starts at the age of two and a half when she first steps on the vaudeville stage…

What Judy Garland songs can we expect to see you perform?

Zing!, The Man That Got Away, Get Happy, Smile, The Trolley Song, Just In Time, Rockabye, Swanee, You Made Me Love You, That’s Entertainment, I Could Go On Singing, plus a few other surprises and, against my better judgment, Over the Rainbow, because no one should really sing that song but Judy. Unfortunately my audience expects it so I do my best. After studying her life so closely I may break down in tears singing that bloody song. Maybe the audience won’t notice.

Why is Judy Garland such a fascinating person to pay tribute to?

Simply because she was the greatest entertainer of her time. All her peers – Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis and many more legends – all felt that way about her. She was a major actress, dancer, comedian and singer. Her story has been told before and yet I’m surprised to find many have not heard it, so this is a gentle way to explain her amazing and extremely complicated life.

Why do you think she became a gay icon?

Her father was gay and she had two gay husbands, but that’s not the reason. I think it’s simply because gay men understand the emotion behind her singing. The honesty and heart in her delivery, whether she was in a movie or on a stage, was breathtaking. It’s the X Factor thing and she had it in spades.

What else do you have coming up this summer?

More shows at the Vauxhall Tavern and other venues in London of my new reinvented show. Musically, spiritually, emotionally and physically I like to get close up and cuddle and coo with my audience. That’s one thing Judy and I have always had in common. Giving our all to the audience. She used to stand in the wings and chant to herself “Give ‘em blood” and in the end she gave them her life.

Holly Penfield Sings Judy Garland is on this Thursday (13 Apr) from 7pm at The RVT, 372 Kennington Lane, London, SE11 5HY. 

Book tickets via vauxhalltavern.com.

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