The Thrill of Love is well-titled. The words are taken from Cole Porter’s great song, “Love for Sale”, sung by a streetwalker and expressive of emotional emptiness. It is one of many Billie Holiday recordings that punctuate this treatment of the story of Ruth Ellis, the night-club hostess who was the last woman to be hanged in this country. These bruised ballads are part of a range of effects that bring the ambience of film noir to the New Vic production of Amanda Whittington’s play.
However, there is a real sense of style over substance. Blackouts, sudden crashes or bangs, the lights flashing, agonised poses struck, a man in a trilby lurking in the shadows, smashed bottles, blood and booze – the whole armoury is brought out in James Dacre’s production. Many of the effects work very well (Daniella Beattie’s atmospheric lighting is excellent and Billie Holiday is the perfect accompaniment to hopeless love), but they remain effects.
Ruth Ellis was rightly found guilty of the murder of her lover David Blakely in 1955. She instantly admitted shooting him to death. The problematic areas of the case, apart from the public’s horror at the execution of an attractive young woman, lie in the domestic violence she suffered from Blakely (which was not considered as a mitigating circumstance) and the suspicion that another of her lovers, Desmond Cussen, was implicated in the crime.
Amanda Whittington foregrounds Ellis’s sufferings, physical and emotional, and also the giddy febrile world of post-war London clubland, nicely captured in Jonathan Fensom’s elegant/seedy designs. She uses a detective inspector, Jack Gale (solidly played by Mark Meadows), to investigate the truth behind the case. Blakely, interestingly, does not appear, probably to enhance both his glamour and his cruelty. Instead three female characters (one historical, two fictional) support, encourage, oppose and, occasionally, fail Ruth.
Vickie Martin was Ellis’s best friend and, like so many of her circle, was known by various names (born Valerie Mews) and met a violent death – in a motor accident in the same year as the murder of Blakely. Whittington uses her cleverly to suggest what Ellis aspired to – friendship with Diana Dors, no less – and Maya Wasowicz exudes a sensuous amorality along with a sense of girlish fun in the happier days before it all gets too serious. The two invented characters, the nightclub manageress Sylvia and the charwoman Doris, receive sympathetic performances from Hilary Tones and Katie West, the one concealing her heart beneath a hard-boiled exterior, the other guileless, but in some ways more worldly-wise than the flamboyant Miss Ellis. As Ruth Ellis, the archetypal blonde bombshell, Faye Castelow is an intense amalgam of brittleness, uneasy gaiety, emotional instability and stoic obstinacy.
It’s an evening at the theatre that demands attention, but I’m not sure it does justice to the remarkable story of Ruth Ellis.
The Thrill of Love continues at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough until 23 March. For further information visit www.sjt.uk.com