The Thrill of Love at St James Theatre London. Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain, convicted of the coldblooded killing of her unfaithful lover. Directed by James Dacre, this gripping new play by the author of the hugely popular ‘Be My Baby’ takes a new look at the real woman behind the headlines and at the events that drive her to murder.
A story about a murder it is; a whodunit it most definitely is not. There is no question as to who shot racing driver David Blakely outside the Magdala pub on that fateful Easter Sunday 1955; Ruth Ellis was quite candid about her guilt. The only mystery remaining is why. If you come to see The Thrill of Love expecting all of your questions to be answered however, you will leave disappointed. There are no revelations, no previously unpublicised details, no ground-breaking discoveries. What this remarkably insightful and thought-provoking play offers us is a study of the lady herself. Free from the labels generally stamped upon her: bombshell; victim; tart; writer Amanda Whittington’s Ruth is intriguing, disconcerting and very, very human.
Faye Castelow gives a powerful performance in the main role, whisking us through Ruth’s highs, as a beautiful and bubbly night club hostess, and her lows, as a broken woman addicted to her man, with equal authenticity. Her obvious instability is nerve-wracking, and despite the fact that we all know what is going to happen, she manages to keep you on a knife edge for much of the play. The shocking and bloody crisis scene, when her self-imposed abasement is finally complete, is as violent as a blow.
Her friends try in vain to keep her doomed life on track; sassy and cynical nightclub hostess Sylvia Shaw, played by Hilary Tomes who cleverly keeps her character just the right side of cliché, shares her wit and her wisdom with her protégée, Ruth. Her roommate Vickie Martin, played by Maya Wasowicz, has found short-lived success which she tries to share with her friend. Katie West plays Doris Judd, the devoted charwoman who refuses to give up on Ruth when everybody else has.
Almost everybody. The other person who never gives up is Jack Gale, the detective who was always sure there was more to Ruth’s story than she was letting on, and continued fighting to prove it right up until the bitter end. Robert Gwilym plays him with increasingly frustrated weariness, gradually losing any kind of order or sense to his life as the case begins to swallow him whole. He is the only man to ever appear in the stage; the others being merely implied, though their presence looms large over everything that happens. This is clearly a man’s world, but we get to see it through the eyes of the women who are desperately trying to learn the rules of the boys’ games, to succeed, to survive. “I’m upset because you’ve shot a man,” snaps Sylvia to Ruth in prison. “Not one of them is worth what you’re facing.”
Jack Gale is also the narrator of the story, increasing the “film noir” impression which the plush velour and bottle strewn set, the smoky atmosphere and dim lighting and the scratchy Billie Holiday soundtrack had already started. Clever stylistic devices including flashing camera bulbs, sudden black-outs, spotlights and character freezes all serve to reinforce this image, although not all of these are as effective in an intimate theatrical setting as they would have been in a film. Watching people fuss with glasses and chairs, even in character, after a dramatic freeze and black-out rather detracts from the impact. Some, however, such as the violent slamming shut of the record record-player, abruptly cutting short Billie’s voice just as Ruth’s life is also severed, were inventive and powerful.
Overall the only real criticism of the play was that it felt slightly rushed. Dramatic pauses were truncated and portentous conversations occasionally gabbled. This was probably due to the fact that there was no interval; there was an awful lot of action to fit into the allotted ninety minutes. But in The Thrill of Love there is so much to notice and appreciate, so many layers to the characters that one feels rather cheated to be hurried through without enough time for reflection and analysis. Still, this a fascinating and moving production which offers a very real vision of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain, and of her struggles in the harsh world of 1950s London which could just have been what pushed her all the way to the scaffold.
Review by Genni Trickett
St. James Theatre
12 Palace Street
London, SW1E 5JA
4th April 2013