Playing at the Riverside Studios, London until 8 June.
Ruby in the Dust’s new play-with-music, written by Joe Evans and directed by Linnie Reedman, tells the story of Grenadian-born Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson who became one of the biggest cabaret stars of the 1920s and 1930s. He was also lover to both Cole Porter and Edwina Mountbatten, wife of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Queen’s cousin.
The writing of Hutch’s biography by Charlotte Breese (from which the play is adapted) is an interesting story in itself. A friend of Breese’s father was a literary agent for Curtis Brown, whose clients included David Heneker, composer of Half a Sixpence and Charlie Girl. He was also a friend of Hutch in the 1930s.
Heneker asked Breese to write the biography, a commission she initially turned down, knowing it would “take ten years of my life!” Eventually she succumbed, and ten years later – after journeying all over the globe to uncover his story – the book came out in 1999.
This man’s extraordinary life encompassed far more that simply his rise to fame with the help of high profile figures like Porter, but in order to condense the story to a play which runs for under two hours, these are the elements dramatised.
Ruby in the Dust is a very youthful company with plenty of pizzazz and enthusiasm, with artists at various stages of experience. Indeed, the leading man (Sheldon Green) has not yet finished his training and is in his third year at Rose Bruford College.
There are many pleasing things about this production. Beautifully designed (Chris Hone) and costumed (Belle Mundi), we immediately enter the glamorous world of 1920s and 1930s Paris and the louche decadence of that period. The songs, of course, are nearly all Porter’s, and the choreography danced by the group Halbwelt Kultur works well.
There are some excellent performances, most notably from Nell Mooney as the brittle Linda Porter, and the elegant, understated portrayal of Edwina by Imogen Daines.
Also effective as Porter, the manipulative and predatory Svengali figure in Hutch’s life, is Sid Phoenix. Porter’s influence on Hutch’s career cannot be underestimated. Not only did he personally teach him the songs, but ensured he met the right people.
Some of the story is told through the lyrics of the compositions, but by and large Act I simply sets the scene for the affair with Edwina to emerge. Act II is where the drama starts to take off properly, outlining Hutch’s ultimate betrayal by her and the start of his decline, both personal and professional. However, his descent into obscurity was as much a result of his addiction to drink and sex, as to any actions by upper class society of the period.
The character of Hutch is also more convincingly inhabited by Green in Act II. The character’s realisation that both the love affair and his career are effectively finished is shown without histrionics, and the actor’s potential for storytelling through song comes through with his embittered and resigned interpretation of ‘These Foolish Things’.
As is often the case with new work, there are places where some rewriting would serve the text, most particularly in Act I where the storytelling requires a subtler touch and there are one or two songs too many. This would also help the less experienced actors get their teeth into the inner life of the characters.
Notwithstanding these birthing flaws, however, the story of this larger than life man is concisely and entertainingly told, and it is a story well worth the telling. Hutch’s daughter and son were in the audience on opening night and son Chris Hutchinson addressed the audience after the production to speak of his father’s courage in leaving Granada aged just 17 to go to a prejudiced New York and battle through his career against the odds.
It is high time the contribution Leslie Hutch made to our cultural heritage, and indeed to the interpretation of the American songbook, was recognised and acknowledged.