The Thrill of Love by Amanda Whittington. The Riverhead Theatre, Louth 10th March 2020.
Ruth Ellis cut a tragic figure at the time of her death. A young life cut short in what should have been her prime. A single mother who was exploited and abused by the men around her, she took revenge on her lover and key disappointment in her life, David Blakely. Ruth Ellis took a gun that had been given to her and fired six shots at her former lover, knowing that it would kill him and then confessed all to the police. Her subsequent trial garnered the only verdict really possible in such a case - the death penalty for murder. She entered the national consciousness and the halls of infamy as the last woman hanged in the UK.
The play begins with a scene in which we meet Ruth in her silky underwear parading her very obvious glamour and allure across the stage, applying make-up and looking every inch the glamorous "film star" she longed to be. This we soon learn is little more than a facade and we realise that there is a chasm between the way the world sees Ruth and the way she sees herself. This a theme that recurs throughout this play. The peroxide blonde is clearly not who Ruth Ellis really was, but IS the veneer she wanted the world to see.
We meet a Detective Inspector, sympathetic to her cause, trying to persuade her to depart from the nonsensical decision to confess all at the police station and we keep hearing repetitions of six throughout the course of the play, echoing the gunshots as camera flashes, or indeed as shots themselves.
In this fascinating and incredibly well-written play. Amanda Whittington fills in the blanks that many of us query as we read her story. By using a fictional amalgam to create a detective on the case, Jack Gale, a hard-drinking, jazz-loving, no-nonsense Detective Inspector (portrayed with a convincing sense of world-weariness by Alan Watkinson) we are led through the story beginning with the shooting itself and concluding with Ruth's hanging. Ruth Ellis is portrayed powerfully by Fiona Beasley, and we see and sympathise with her tragedy, almost rooting for her to beat the charge of murder levelled against her following her own, willing confession. We see Ellis as a fragile soul, damaged goods and a trophy passed around the various men at the elite hostess establishments she made her home in the late 1950's.
The one real breath of fresh air that enters the story is actress Vicky Martin, a naive young girl in London for the first time with big dreams of becoming a movie star, something she achieved in real life. Vicky Martin is played by the effervescent, Katie Leonard. She lights up the stage in every scene, until the (almost) equally tragic end to her story too. We see how deeply this affects Ruth and those around her.
We also meet other members of the hostess scene in Sylvia Shaw, played powerfully by Kate Messinger and Doris Judd portrayed with incredible sensitivity by Kim Birchall.
This play works as a text on so many levels and it is a brave choice to stage at the Riverhead Theatre. It is unlikely to be to everyone's taste but do not be put off by the subject matter, there is humour even though this play explores the human condition extremely well. The play opens up the history of a case that we, as a nation should bear some degree of shame in. The indignity and shame that embraced Ruth Ellis was only partially of her own making, too much is because of the behaviour of men in her life, which the legal system failed to acknowledge satisfactorily. This is a human story. This neo-noir thriller will make you ask if the death penalty was the right decision in Ruth's case. I hope you get to see it during its limited run. The show runs until Saturday.
The Thrill of Love, directed by Vicki Head and Viv Ranick , opens on Wednesday 11th March to Saturday 14th March. Tickets can be purchased from The Riverhead Theatre's box office, or online at www.louthriverheadtheatre.com.
Review and photography by Andy Evans.