Musical theatre review of new work by Joe Evans and Linnie Readman on Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson – once a huge cabaret star in the UK. But that was before he had an affair with Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten!
“…Beautifully …costumed (Belle Mundi)…some excellent performances”
Ruby in the Dust‘s new play-with-music, written by Joe Evans and directed by Linnie Reedman, tells the story of Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson, a black West Indian and one of the biggest cabaret stars of the ’20s and ’30s. 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 is an interesting story itself. A friend of Breese’s father was a literary agent for Curtis Brown, whose clients included David Henecker, composer of ‘Half a Sixpence’ and ‘Charlie Girl’. He was also a friend of Hutch in the 1930’s.
Henecker asked Breese to write the biography, a commission she initially turned down, knowing it would “take 10 years of my life!” Eventually she succumbed- and 10 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 Cole Porter and his affair with Edwina Mountbatten, but in order to condense the story to a play 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 3rd 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 world the 20’s and ‘30’s glamour of 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 Cole 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 songs, but by and large the first half simply sets the scene for the affair with Edwina to emerge. The second half 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. 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 Sheldon in the second half. The character’s realisation that both the love affair and his career are effectively finished is shown without histrionics, and Sheldon’s potential for story-telling through song comes through with his embittered and resigned interpretation of “These Foolish Things”.
Sheldon sings patter songs e.g “I’m A Gigolo” and “Let’s Do It” well, and as his career progresses, it would be good to see him develop his singing technique, particularly in ballads where at present his vocal on-set is a little too strong for the genre. Also, his approach would benefit from a closer analysis of the lyrics for cabaret singing.
As is often the case with new work, there are places where some re-writing would serve it, most particularly in the first half where the dialogue is over- direct, and the story-telling unsubtle with 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 real life daughter and son were in the audience tonight 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 racist 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.