Playwright Amanda Whittington’s look at Ruth Ellis’ tragic demise as nightclub hostess and mother of two to convicted murderer is one of sympathy, rather than mystery. The unfolding of real-life events, told in reverse order in the play The Thrill of Love currently at the St James Theatre, relates Ellis’ background, which was haunted by a string of abuses — important key elements that the investigating team in 1955 failed to highlight. Nearly 60 years later, Whittington and director James Dacre review her case with a play that neither accuses nor backs away: ‘The Thrill of Love’ simply shows there is always more than meets the eye.
Set in a dark, smoky cabaret-like setting complete with jazz singers crooning Billie Holiday tunes, the audience is introduced to Gentlemen’s Club matron Sylvia Shaw (superbly played by Hilary Tones), her cleaner and assistant Doris Judd (Katie West) and Ellis’ fiery best-friend Vickie Martin (a smart Maya Wasowicz). A fictional Inspector Jack Gales (Robert Gwilym) narrates the play with interspersed guest appearances, lending a gentle, fatherly voice to a case, he believes, deserves more investigation than an otherwise straight-forward confession (given by Ellis at the start of the show).
Beginning in a series of flashbacks, Ellis’ wide-eyes and blonde-tousled hair award her a job at Shaw’s high profile celebrity haunt The Little Club, where she works as both an entertainment hostess and subsequently a prostitute. She marries client, George Ellis, whom she bears one child with; however, due to his violent beatings, she leaves him. After moving up to a managerial position at The Carroll Club, she meets David Blakely, a hard-edged race-car driver known for his dalliances with other women (and men). Further scenes indicate Ellis was involved with other disrespectful men, but her infatuation lied first and foremost with the aggressive and unfaithful Blakely. As seen in the play’s opening sequence, Ellis ultimately makes her way to a club in Hampstead where she shoots her lover five times, and to his death. She immediately turns herself in, admitting to the crime.
While this sequence of events is heart-breaking, it is the scenes in between this timeline that tell a more sorrowful story. None of the men are actually present in the play – it is instead the close relationships between Ellis and the other women at the club (Shaw, Judd and Martin) that help reveal a behind-the-scenes look at how her life unravelled – from confessions of her shattered hopes at becoming an actress to her late-night finishes, high on drugs and alcohol and covered in bruises. The play’s set design follows her downward spiral in equal tone and measurement: designer Jonathan Fensome’s sexy club is transformed to a trashy room littered with cigarette packs and bottles of booze.
The play tries hard to cast a net over her hard life, with hopes to reel in a bag of questions with answers. While it assures us she had valid reasons for being angry, it also points out that there are many answers no one will ever know, such as how she obtained the gun, and why she chose that particular moment to murder Blakely. However mysterious her case may be, don’t go along hoping for an investigative thriller: the show provides an honest look at one woman’s view that there was no other choice but to kill, and in turn, be killed. Her controversial case heightened the momentum to end executions in Britain, making it a law ten years later. Ruth Ellis, perfectly played by Faye Castelow, reminds that both sides of the story should always be taken into consideration, whatever the horrific case may be.
The Thrill Of Love is showing at St James Theatre through 4 May 2013, Monday through Saturday evenings 7.30pm/Wednesday and Saturday matinees 2.30pm. Show runs 90 minutes without interval. Tickets £15 up to £40 with concessions available.