The New Vic have a good record of their revivals of classic plays – but their new play, The Thrill of Love is even better.
There’s a lot of kudos for being the first something. If you’re a woman, you can be the first woman in space or the first female Prime Minister. If you can’t achieve either of those, you can also be famous for being the last something. And that’s what Ruth Ellis achieved, the only snag being the record she bagged. Being the last woman to be hanged carries the annoying side-effect of death. On the plus side, her story was so fascinating she was immortalised in history. Peter Anthony Allen, the last man to be hanged, must be feeling very short changed. Anyway, since her death there have been many depictions of her life on stage and screen, and the latest contribution comes from Amanda Whittington (best known for Be My Baby), with a play called The Thrill of Love.
This has been premièred by the New Vic Theatre, first at their own theatre in Stoke-on-Trent and now touring to the Stephen Joseph Theatre, as they often do. If you’re wondering why these two theatres tour their productions to each other so much, it’s down to their shared history. In the early days, before Scarborough’s famous producing theatre was named after its founder, Stephen Joseph went to Stoke to set up a second theatre in the round, taking with him a little-known playwright called Alan Ayckbourn. Eventually both men returned to Scarborough, but the two theatres have generally maintained good relations. But whilst the Stephen Joseph Theatre is best know for the works of the not-so-little-known-any-more playwright, the New Vic has gone its own way, mostly showing classic plays such as Cider with Rosie, Laurel and Hardy, And A Nightingale Sang and Bus Stop in a style that is unmistakably theirs. I hadn’t realised that, for once, they were touring with a completely new play.
To make her play different from all of the other Ruth Ellis plays and films out there, she makes one radical change: David Blakely, the lover she shot dead, does not appear on stage anywhere in the play, neither does Desmond Cussen, her other lover. In fact, the only man seen on stage is Gale (Mark Meadows, playing a composite of several real people), a detective obsessed in learning why she did what she did. As a result, this is a play that heavily focuses on Ruth Ellis herself – her life before her meeting Blakely, what was going on during the ill-fated romance, the final few weeks before the gallows – with the murder and events that led to it only forming part of the story.
One warning: this approach makes the play complicated. Like most real people, Ruth Ellis’s backstory is very difficult to fit into a two-hour play in any detail, and when you’ve got a murder to fit in it goes doubly complicated. It is possible to follow the play, but you have to concentrate very hard. You might have an easier time if you read up her story in advance. (Oh, and the play skips over the start of the relationship so you don’t see much of the thrill bit – The Anguish, Heartbreak and Ultimately Fatal Outcome of Love might have been a more accurate title, but it would put the punters off.)
But it’s worth the extra brain-power, because this change of emphasis allows a good look at the sort of life Ruth Ellis led. The cast is completed by three women in her life. Sylvia Shaw (Hilary Tones) is the manageress of the Murray’s “nightclub” where Ruth and other girls make a living “hostessing” – in upmarket 1950s-speak. In brutal honesty, “nightclub” and “hostessing” are not far off code-words for “brothel” and “prostitution”. Doris Judd (Katie West), as charwoman (and therefore the only woman in the club who doesn’t have to sleep with client) never fully understand the life Ruth has chosen, but nonetheless remains loyal through thick and thin.
Most fascinating, however, is Vickie Martin (Maya Wasowicz), a one-time aspiring film star. Who remembers her now? She begins the play as a fellow hostess working with Ruth, and for her, sleeping with clients, the club’s owner, or anyone rich or powerful is no barrier to someone of her ambition. She even did rather well is the girlfriend of an Indian Prince, until she died in a car accident aged 23. And in her first scene, she firmly predicted to Ruth that Murray’s Club would be most famous as the place where film star Vickie Martin once worked. Oh, the irony.
Amanda Whittington’s play is quite a damning portrayal of how unfair life was for Ruth Ellis. Her relationship with Blakely was an abusive one (the final straw was him beating her to cause a miscarriage) and the crime today would almost certainly have been manslaughter on diminished responsibility. Much of society heavily frowned on her seedy life, but apparently didn’t have a problem with the kind of elite going to these kind of clubs. Her defence didn’t do her any favours telling her to plead not guilty – but with it being paid for by a national newspaper one must question if their priority was selling more papers. (Maybe Ruth Ellis did this so that her son would be taken care of, but it didn’t work, because her son eventually took his own life in his twenties.) All of this, and Ruth’s fragility in a situation she had little control over, was exceptionally performed by Faye Castelow. The praise she received from the national reviews is thoroughly deserved. You can easily understand why the hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, later described Ellis as the bravest women he’d ever hanged.
The New Vic’s may have earned a good reputation for classic plays, but they were, if anything, even stronger premièring this new play. All New Vic plays I’ve been have been exquisitely choreographed, and James Dacre’s work as director is no exception. On top of this, the sound design from James Earls-Davis of interwoven old records was also superbly atmospheric. It is not clear closely Whittington and the New Vic worked together in the development of the play, but there’s no arguing with the result.Since the play began in Stoke, is has already secured itself a six-week run at the St. James Theatre in London, and rightly so. Whether it will tour anywhere else after that is uncertain, but I certainly hope it does. Every producing theatre wants a hit that runs for years. Stephen Joseph has The Woman in Black, Live has The Pitmen Painters; the New Vic may shortly be joining this list.