I like my murderers, mainly Victorian and Edwardian I hasten to add. They are part of our rich history. And I like my murderesses even more. Adelaide Bartlett, even though she got off, Mrs Maybrick, Madeleine Smith. All had poisonous charm. Literally. Ruth Ellis, hanged for a murder she definitely did, does not have their appeal but any dramatisation of an old famous murder case will get my theatrical juices racing. Which probably explains why I tootled along to Barn Theatre’s The Thrill of Love for a long overdue review. Amanda Whittington’s play does not have the emotional grip of Rattigan’s Cause Celebre or the heartrending impact of A Pin to see the Peepshow, dramatisations of famous murder cases, but it nevertheless made for a pretty absorbing couple of hours.
Ruth Ellis is one of those who, if she had not tragically existed, someone would have made her up. Stuck between the dying days of post war fifties poverty and the beckoning swinging sixties she lived life to the full. Blasting away her hedonistic and brutal lover on an open London street she immortally died on the gallows for it. I say immortally because not only was she the last woman this country hanged but her execution was a complete travesty of English justice. Mrs Ellis may have believed she deserved to die, but judged from the twenty first century no one else thinks so. Like some before her, Ruth Ellis remains an immutable stain on the British justice system.
Well, now I have got that off my chest what did I think of it. Barn’s production that is. I mean, this is a theatrical blog not a personal rant on the past failures of our beloved legal system. Clearly I am out of practice. Or is it practise, I never know. Illiterate that I am. But even illiterates can see it ain’t easy telling the tale of Ruth Ellis. There are so many facts, so many characters, so many people and incidents who accompanied Mrs Ellis on her fateful journey. The man whose name she took, the night club owner who introduced her to the highs and lows of London life, the wannabe starlet who tragically died in a car crash. The beatings, the babies, the abortions. And the men. Etched in her personal tragedy. David Blakeley, racing driver friend of the more famous Mike Hawthorn and total public schoolboy shit. At least where women were concerned until six bullets shut him up. And Desmond Cussen, shadowy alternative lover and gun supplier to Ellis. So it is said. So many facts, so much to say. So much to explain. It is always the case when a rope is going around a neck. Especially when it is the neck of a pretty peroxide blonde night club hostess rich in emotions but short on control.
Strict literal dramatisation or straight, dry and forensic, courtroom drama are options Amanda Whittington probably considered and dismissed. I am guessing here but that has never stopped me in the past. Theatrically cheaper is to get a few actors, characters and composite characters, to tell the tragic tale in a series of simply staged scenes. It generally worked, even if in the first act I was yearning for more dramatic punch, and gradually a life gleaned from statements, police reports, and courtroom evidence emerged. By the end, particularly in an emotionally strong scene when Ruth Ellis is visited in Holloway prison by her female associates, the enormity and the futility of what she has done is writ large. Here was a woman destroyed by men, first those in her desolate life and then the ones in a legal system failing to understand it. ‘When you fired that revolver into David Blakeley what did you intend to do?’ With her answer ‘It’s obvious, I intended to kill him.’ she ensured her place in history.
Georgina Bennett was an impressive Ruth Ellis and touches of vulnerability were effectively mixed with feisty fragility. If heavy spectacles slightly marred my iconic image of this tragic figure I can see why they were used. She was given commendable if quirky support by Josie Matthews (actress and model) and Kat Peacock (charwoman) and, notably, Natalie Gordon (nightclub manageress) as a hard hitting, hard drinking, woman who had seen it all. And as that all came frighteningly apart Miss Gordon’s character wondered at the senselessness of it. All were ciphers for the telling of Ellis’s story as was Clive Weatherley in the sole male role of Detective Inspector. Mixing narrator and chorus Mr Weatherley knitted the tale with skill and watchability. His was the voice of all who think Ruth Ellis was a wasted life.
I reckon director Jon Brown did a pretty faithful job of Amanda Whittington’s interpretation. Simple and effective locations with minimal props moved by the cast. I didn’t particularly like the jokey judge, the style jarred with the second act mood, but that is neither the fault of the actress or the director. It’s in the script milord. As I assume were the heavy glasses. They were taken off by Ruth Ellis as she went to the gallows. To the tune of ‘I’ll be seeing you.’ And anyone who ends a play like this with that song is doing pretty well in my book. Pierrepoint, the hangman, said that executing Ruth Ellis was an act of society’s revenge. I doubt if many, watching this, would disagree with him. Roy Hall