Friday, February 15, 2019

Ruby – warts and all tragedy of Belfast talent troubled by anxiety and alcoholism (Lyric Theatre + NI tour)

Driving down the Donegall Road yesterday, I counted three poster displays linking Ruby Murray with the area. After today, there’ll be a fourth mention with the erection of a blue plaque to recognise the singing sensation born in south Belfast.

A few years ago, playwright Michael Cameron was sitting near me in an opening night audience at The MAC. During the interval we chatted and he mentioned that he was working on a play about Ruby Murray. I knew the name, but couldn’t have listed anything she sang, though it turns out I could have hummed along with most if you’d played them.

Then last May, I was present at a read-through of some scenes in East Side Arts Centre and could begin to piece together the troubled life story behind this musical star as I listened to a story that was darker and more complex than I had realised. Cameron’s mentor Sam McCready was directing proceedings, adding his silvery touch to the emerging work. Sadly he died early this week before the show opened.

The full production of Ruby directed by Richard Orr is now in the middle of a sold out run in the Lyric Theatre before embarking on a regional tour. Seated in a comfy armchair in a Torquay nursing home, the retired and ailing singer addresses the Lyric audience as if we’re sitting on a sofa opposite her. While sedentary for the majority of the performance, Actor Libby Smyth creates an intimate atmosphere and you begin to believe that this plainly dress woman once had her hair lacquered back and belted out hits in her distinctively husky voice. The play builds to an emotional crescendo and Smyth channels frustration and disappointment in those final moments.

Fortified by a wee drink or two, she reminisces about wartime evacuation as a child – a very bad experience that haunted her for the rest of her life – and the unexpected road to musical success that began singing in pubs and peaked by topping the bill at the London Palladium. The oft-quoted fact of having five singles simultaneously in the top twenty is remarkable. She worked with Norman Wisdom, her bête noire Alma Cogan, Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Laine and a rash of other household names.

Belfast audiences seem to revel in donning their rose-tinted spectacles to look back the good old days in Belfast, and the last year has featured a feast of shows in the Lyric served up to meet this nostalgic appetite: Paperboy and Good Vibrations. Ruby adds to that list with its dark tale of what goes up must come down.

Ruby’s story is blighted with poor business advice, serial exploitation, and the effects of alcoholism on her family and her own health, an all too common trait of Belfast stars. The script is honest about the physical violence she meted out on her husbands. I can see why this isn’t the first time a playwright has tackled her bittersweet story with Marie Jones creating a show with the same name back in April 2000.

If you sat down in the black Mastermind chair after the end of the 80-minute performance, you probably wouldn’t embarrass yourself answering questions on Ruby Murray’s given the information in the play. Yet Cameron’s mature and pared-back script conveys it all in a very natural way, and I never felt like I was being given another fact, just another facet of the story. The monologue is chronological and recounts enough drama that it doesn’t warrant other theatrical bells and whistles.

Performed as a tragedy rather than a musical celebration, only snippets of Murray’s hit songs are injected into the performance. But they’re well-chosen and apt with the prescience of the opening “I shall always hope and pray / That you love me in the end” making sense in the final scenes of the play as the state of her relationship with first husband Bernie Burgess is revealed.

Ruby is a promising work by a relatively new playwright. In the retelling of her life story, Cameron succeeds in celebrating the talent without papering over the trials and tribulations that blighted success.

The sold out run in the Lyric Theatre continues until 17 February, before touring through Marketplace Theatre, Armagh (Thursday 21 February – sold out), Web Theatre, Newtownards (Friday 22 February – sold out), Craic Theatre, Coalisland (Saturday 23 February), Alley Theatre, Strabane (Thursday 28 February), Island Arts Centre, Lisburn (1 March – sold out) and Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey (Saturday 2 March).

Photo credit: Dave Pettard

1 comment:

Heather Houston said...

The opening night was just fabulous! One hour and 20mins of such emotion! Just wonderful! Well Done Michael Cameron!