Riverside Studios is always a hub of interesting activities. Among the many other shows and films it currently has on offer is Joe Evans’s Hutch, a play charting a period in the life of 1920s cabaret star Leslie Hutchinson. Hutchinson was a lauded pianist and singer of the era who was as well known for his bisexuality and liasons as for his musical prowess. Being black kept him, even at the height of his fame, assigned to the tradesman’s entrances (the back door) of the venues he filled.
In the the ’20s he teamed up with Cole Porter, becoming his lover; in the ’30s he cracked America, but an affair with Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the Queen’s cousin Lord Louis, was one too many. A tabloid furore ensued, with Mounbatten going to court. Hutch’s career, and life, fizzled out.
If you know nothing about Hutchinson, Evans’ play requires pre-reading. The language is very subtle, with quiet references made to “living lies”, and such like; no overt references to bisexuality are ever made, which can result in much head scratching when things kick off. I went in completely new to the story, so when Hutch’s affairs with men and married women began to unroll, I was more than a little confused.
The cast kept whipping out a variety of talents; acting, singing, dancing and piano playing, which was impressive. However the love triangle of Sid Phoenix, Sheldon Green and Imogan Daines as Porter, Hutch and Mountbatten, had little chemistry. I did wonder if they perhaps had been cast on their musical/singing abilities first and their acting second, which makes sense for the production, but leaves the dialogue scenes a little flat and emotionless.
Hutch is not a musical, but there are a lot of musical numbers; the stage itself is set out like a cabaret venue: piano, stage, several round intimate tables. While I enjoy the songs of Porter (‘Let’s Do It’, ‘Let’s Fall In Love’, ‘Anything Goes’), because the songs were neither performed as they would be in a musical, nor quite as they would be in a cabaret, once the novelty wore off the constant breaking into song began to drag, and made the play feel longer than it was.
Such a complex history as Hutch’s is difficult to cram into 90 minutes. The company evoked the era excellently in their costumes, music and manner of speaking, and the songs were perfomed wonderfully. On the whole though it felt like important information was either rushed through or left unclear. The actors were musically skilled but the emotional extremes of love and bitterness, confusion and hate the characters go through never really came across. A great deal of care and effort has clearly gone into the work, but it lacks heart.
Hutch runs at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith until 8 June. For more information and tickets, see the Riverside Studios website.