Sick of the 1920s yet? Gatsby fever seems to have taken hold, with Baz Luhrmann’s fanfare of a film adding bling to the bopping, and Northern Ballet’s version currently playing in London. Following on from the success of their own musical version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel (which is revived at the Riverside Studios later this month), Ruby in the Dust theatre company’s show Hutch looks set to be the antidote to flapper saturation, but without forgoing the deco decadence. Its a brand new play with the music of Cole Porter and others about the life of jazz singer and pianist Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson.
Based on the acclaimed biography by Charlotte Breese, Joe Evans briefly charts the rise and fall of Hutch from his meeting and romantic fling with Cole Porter in Paris, to the scandalous affair with Lady Edwina Mountbatten in London that ultimately destroyed his career and him with it. Whilst it’s not a comprehensive profile of an artist, Evans does well to create a dynamic and punchy story out of the basic facts. But unfortunately for all the charm and intrigue he brings to his work, the production itself stops it from being remarkable.
The main issue is that being in a television studio-cum-theatre space the acoustic is incredibly dead. This unfortunately means that any notion of the play being set in the raucous and bustling Jazz Age is quickly sucked from the room. Try as hard as the production and cast might, a flatness runs through it. This isn’t helped by a very minimal scoring of solo piano and a double-bass: to sparkle in this space it’s very hard work. Chris Hone’s set is the only thing that manages to hold glamour throughout, a bright performance bowl crammed with Art Deco patterns.
This is a production that desperately screams out for a good sound technician. The background clamour of the crowd at Café de Paris, or the noisy roar of Parisian traffic could really lift it and add a much needed resonance, albeit an artificial one.
Furthermore, the casting isn’t as strong as it could be. It’s the support that do most of the work. Sid Phoenix as Cole Porter is slick, seductive, and wry. Nell Mooney is tragically long suffering as Linda Porter. And Imogen Daines delivers powerful moments: fated by her nobility and torn by the passionate love she holds for Hutch. Between them there’s a real sense of posturing pride and quiet resentment in their destructively hedonistic lives that is captivating to watch as well as adding colour to the story.
But Sheldon Green is completely unconvincing as the show’s star. Phoenix and Mooney do well with their American accents, but for a character born in Grenada and raised in Harlem, Green plays Hutch distractingly British. Furthermore, there are many times where his acting is wooden, which is a shame as the themes of fame, love, sex, and racism are quite severe at points, and he just can’t seem to bring energy to them. He’s for the most part unable to be the passionate and impassioned music legend that Hutch was.
His only saving grace is that he’s an exquisite singer and a formidable jazz pianist. Though he fails to feel organic in his speech, he bring a heartbreaking subtlety to the songs he sings, finding a deep charm and nuance as he plies an effortlessly silky voice.
The reason to see this show is Evans’ choice of songs. He picks, adapts and places them into the plot managing to extract from them a relevant and often intense emotion to astonishing effect. But whilst it isn’t great, at least it isn’t another Gatsby. Hutch is a solid, interesting, and at times enchanting biography that just needs more polish and pizazz.
Hutch plays at the Riverside Studios, London, W6 9RL, on selected dates until 8 June 2013. Tickets are £17.50 (concessions available). To book visit www.riversidestudios.co.uk.
NB This review was graciously arranged for me to do at the final preview performance, as I was last minute unable to make press night. Therefore some changes to the play may have been made since.