An honourable, concise, elegant and gut-wrenching portrayal of a beloved and seminal artist, Ruby!, directed by Richard Orr from a script by Michael Cameron, might just be the Bohemian Rhapsody we really wanted, in that it not only hears the outer music but also understands the inner notes of the central character.

It is the essence of Belfast singing star Ruby Murray, more than simply her recordings, that make both her and the show tick, and Cameron, Orr and actress Libby Smyth have nailed and relayed this within the confines of a one-woman, eighty-minute show at the Lyric Theatre's Naughton Studio.

"Singing was my specialist subject, probably because I was no good at anything else", says Smyth's Ruby, seated in front of a full house with only a little Scotch to sip now and then while a selection of her best known tunes play in between monologues. It is not rage that drives her initially, rather, a kind of quiet contempt doused by relief. Opening up to us about the early experiences that shaped her personality and her voice, be they dead pigs, rats, swollen glands and her rival Alma Cogan, is remedial, a bittersweet, anti-nostalgic sincerity very much in line with the recently departed Sam McCready's powerful No Surrender.

Genuine uplift is delightful but fleeting in a brave, ruthless narrative. The magic of topping the bill at the London Palladium, with the Queen taking Ruby's hand, is tempered by missing the solace and solitude of home, while the joy of performing and having five top twenty records by the age of nineteen seems virtually cancelled out by the pain of poor business advice.

In a big way, Ruby! is a dedicated exploration of the art, heart, finance and ego of the entertainer, on both sides. There is a gap between who we are, who we want to be and who others want us to be, especially when one is in the limelight to the extent Ruby Murray is in this play and was in real life. Anxiety can be amplified to the point of alcoholism, one's use and abuse by others leading to him or her using and abusing those who care, or want to care, most. The erosion of apparent empathy into shocking exploitation is illustrated with devastating brilliance.

The natural inclination to feel resentful towards celebrities who seem to "have it all" and are trapped in too much of a bubble to care is apparent even today, but, as Ruby and Ruby! show us, they are not necessarily the ones who benefit most, if ever. The sources of where most of a star's apparent wealth actually lands is a mystery rarely unveiled, which makes Ruby! refreshing. Anyone who is the centre of attention is the easiest scapegoat when the truth really runs much deeper, as it always has. Cameron's scripting, Orr's directing and Smyth's performance force not only an appreciative rethink of Ruby Murray, but ourselves. To think about who we trust, and why, exactly, we trust them. It's not nihilist, but unbearably human - too much control is as bad as too little, on either side, something which has an indelible effect on the deep love between Ruby and first husband Bernie Burgess, among others. What, for example, if all Bernie wanted was the stability which a life like Ruby's was simply unable to give?

By the time the light on Smyth's face turns a pale white near final monologue's end, the actress shows an alarming frailty, capping off a quietly exhausting but thoroughly memorable performance which is the very epitome of an artist who wanted not so much to survive but escape the pressures of a challenging world. The jewel in the Lyric Theatre's crown so far this year, this Ruby! is a gem.

Simon Fallaha

Ruby! premiered at the Lyric Theatre from 13-17 February and will tour Northern Ireland, appearing at: Marketplace Theatre, Armagh 21 February, Web Theatre Newtownards 22 February, Craic Theatre Coalisland 23 February, Alley Theatre Strabane 28 February, Island Arts Centre Lisburn 1 March and Theatre at the Mill Newtownabbey 2 March. For tour bookings visit venue websites or go to Little Willow Productions on Facebook or Twitter.

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