‘The Thrill of Love’ at St James Theatre

Faye Costelow as Ruth Ellis, photo by Donald Cooper

As soon as you walk into the auditorium at the St James theatre you are plunged into a dark, red ruched velvet world filled with cigarette smoke, lubricated with whisky from the drinks trolley.

It is against this backdrop of a seedy night club, frequented by wealthy but rackety men to be entertained by women who dreamed of Hollywood and silver Rolls Royces and to be Diana Dors, or at least the possibility of an invitation to a party at Clivedon, that the play unfolds.

Ruth Ellis, notorious as the last woman to be hanged in Britain (in 1955) for the murder of her lover, David Blakely, is portrayed as a sad victim both of her own wayward passion and of the society that condemned her.  She never denied that she had shot Blakely at close range outside a pub in Hampstead, instead, through the device of a fictional police Inspector, the tension of the play is about why she did it.

The victim never appears on stage, instead the focus is on four women, each trying to make a way for themselves.  There is a contrast between the bad girl as personified by Ruth, and the good girl, the young cleaning woman befriended by her.  There’s the cynical experience of the club manager who’s seen girls come and go, with none of them achieving the wealth or stability that they craves, and the rapid loss of innocence of the girl newly arrived in London, hoping for furs and a rich boyfriend.

The play invites us into a world in which violence against women is commonplace; where abortions are illegal but performed nonetheless, where alcohol and cigarettes are life’s essentials and where a murder trial could end with a noose.  By implication we are asked to think about whether there might be mitigating circumstances for the killing; the history of violence in Ellis’s relationship with Blakely, the earlier abuse she had suffered at the hands of her husband, and the emotional upset of a recent miscarriage.  But also there is no avoiding thinking about the harshness of a society which can exact such a final penalty on one of its citizens, something which was not entirely absent at the time as it was the controversy around this case that did in part lead to the abolition of capital punishement.

All of the performances were terrific, with Faye Costelow particularly affecting as the self destructive Ruth, showing both a tremendous vulnerability and brashness.

Seeing the show did make me want to go back and watch Dance with a Stranger, the 1985 film with Miranda Richardson as Ruth Ellis, and Rupert Everett as Blakely which I remember seeing at the cinema when it was first released and which shocked me at the time.

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