Arts

New stage play celebrates the life of 1950s Belfast pop star Ruby Murray

Jenny Lee chats to Belfast man Michael Cameron about how a painting of Ruby Murray led him on a journey to becoming a playwright, with the guidance of Sam McCreedy, and how he hopes that a new stage adaptation of her life will restore Ruby to the limelight in her native city

A painting of Ruby Murray by Belfast artist Christine Trueman was the inspiration behind the stage play Ruby! about the life of the 50s musical star

RUBY Murray was one of the most successful recording stars of the 1950s, having scored 10 hits in the UK singles chart between 1954 and 1959. The Belfast singer made pop history in March 1955 by having five singles in the top 20 in a single week, including her number one hit Softly Softly.

It's a musical record that still stands to this day, but behind the smiles, a darker story was unfolding in Ruby’s life, as nervous breakdowns and chronic alcoholism took their toll.

Antrim man Michael Cameron was well aware of her place in history but his interest in her music was reignited when his friend Duke Special recorded an album of her music in 2010. However, it was a painting by Belfast artist Christine Trueman that sparked his fascination with the Donegall Road-born star's life and led to him spending the past three years working closely with Ruby's family to write an intimate true-life drama for the Belfast stage.

It was almost a decade ago, when the 53-year-old former civil servant was walking past a pop-up gallery in Belfast's Corn Market, that a painting caught his eye.

"It was unmistakably a painting of Ruby Murray on a white canvas background with what appeared to be beautifully applied pieces of glitter to highlight her hair, eyes and lips to create a really spectacular portrait," recalls Michael, whose enthusiasm was curbed by the artwork's £700 price mark.

However, the image remained in his mind and he returned to buy it a few days later, only to find that the shop had closed down.

"I had no idea who had painted it and searched online for it for a number of years," says Michael.

Michael spent most of his working life as a private secretary and political officer in the Northern Ireland Officer and when former Labour Party minister of state for Northern Ireland Paul Goggins passed away in 2014, he posted a tribute to his friend and on Facebook.

"This girl commented on the post as she also knew Paul and within a few minutes it turned out she was the woman who had painted that picture of Ruby Murray," he recalls.

The artist went on to gift the painting to Michael, who often glanced at it for inspiration when writing his debut play Ruby! and it will take pride of place on the set.

"I’m one of these people who believe that coincidences in life come together. I was just starting to get into writing then and thought Ruby's life was a great subject," says Michael, who was forced to retire from his day job after developing a neurological disorder which affected his speech and balance.

It was through another local singer, Kaz Hawkins, that he was introduced to Sam McCready, a major figure in the Northern Ireland theatre scene, who over the next three years mentored him in "the art of telling a story".

"The way Kaz put it was she knew 'someone who does a bit of theatre'," laughs Michael, who admits he googled Sam's name after emailing him his first draft.

"I almost had a heart attack when I realised his career and stature. But what I quickly discovered about him was his absolute love of theatre and of encouraging others."

While Michael is still in "constant consultation" with Sam, who is now based in the US, plans for the veteran actor, director and playwright to direct Ruby! were thwarted by an illness that has placed restrictions on him flying from his home in Baltimore to Belfast, and local director Richard Orr stepped into the director's chair.

While Sam had personal memories of speaking with Ruby in the old Lyric theatre, I ask Michael, what would he himself have liked to ask the singer if he'd met her?

"The obvious question would be – what would you have done differently? But because I’ve researched her so intensely I feel like I know her so well," says Michael who has formed a friendship with Ruby's first husband Bernie Burgess and her children Tim and Julie.

“I visited Bernie in Birmingham and when the family realised I was serious about telling Ruby's true story they were keen to open their archive and for me not to shy away from the darker episodes of her life.

“Bernie and Ruby got married after only six weeks of knowing each other and had children early. They eventually went their separate ways in the early 70s, their relationship suffering because of the pressures of responsibility and showbiz, and Ruby's alcohol problems," adds Michael, who is delighted that 90-year-old Bernie will be coming to the opening of Ruby! in Belfast's Lyric Theatre next month.

The one-woman play, starring Libby Smyth, will feature a soundtrack of Ruby Murray's original songs. Set in the last year of her life, it sees her reflecting on her early years in Belfast, through to becoming a star, her relationships and difficulties.

This is the second production about the singer to come out of Belfast: Marie Jone's play about Ruby was staged at the old Group Theatre in the city in 2000.

“I’m a huge fan of Marie Jones and I was offered [the opportunity] to see her script, but I had my own idea of what I wanted to do and the last thing I wanted to do was compete with Marie,” Michael says.

He says his play will give an insight into aspects of Ruby's life which are rarely spoken about.

“She was a very nervous person and I’ve looked into some childhood experiences that she had which I think contributed to that and shaped her life.

“When she was a child, during World War Two she was evacuated to a farm in north Antrim with her brother and sister and was treated very badly and mentally abused.

“Ruby Murray never wanted to be a superstar, she just wanted to sing and there were other episodes in her life where she was badly manipulated by agents and managers."

In 2006, 10 years after her death from liver cancer in England, a plaque was unveiled in Ruby's memory in the Ulster Hall. But Michael believes more could be done to celebrate her legacy.

"There is lot of talk here about culture and what defines us, but sadly one of the things we don’t appear to be very good at is celebrating a lot of the people who have made us who we are.

"The play honestly acknowledges Ruby Murrray's flaws, but also celebrates her music, her humour and kindness. What we are trying to say is – here is one incredibly talented lady, who was a beautiful, funny, caring girl. Yes her life didn’t go to plan at times, but it's time Belfast reclaimed her and remembered her for what she was – a musical legend.

The name 'Ruby Murray' has been adopted in Cockney rhyming slang for 'curry'. "Her son tells a good story that he’s the only person in the world that can say "let’s go out for a 'mum'". But it’s time we use her name for the right reason," adds Michael who is currently in talks about adapting his play for the screen.

:: Ruby! will be performed at Belfast's Lyric Theatre from February 13-17. Not suitable for under-16s. Tickets from Lyrictheatre.co.uk

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