Facts are facts. Unequivocal truths. Ruth Ellis murdered David Blakely on Easter Sunday, 1955. Unquestionable. Indefensible. She confessed to it, the Court found her guilty of it… and Ruth Ellis hanged for it.
“Nothing deceives like an obvious fact.”
The judicial system in the 1950s was very different to now. No room for extenuating circumstances. No pleas of “diminished responsibility”. No understanding or compassion for mental health issues, or childhood trauma or domestic abuse. The law was definitive – the verdict was “Guilty” or “Not guilty”, nothing in between.
And yet it became crystal clear to the public at the time, if not the Judge and Jury, that not all punishments fit the crime. Such was the public outrage around Ellis’ trial, sentence and execution, that it directly brought about the abolition of capital punishment in the UK, even if it was to take another 14 years to achieve.
The Thrill Of Love examines the backstory of the last woman to be hanged for murder in this country. Through the eyes of ever-present Detective Inspector Jack Gale, Ruth’s later life unfolds in a series of flashbacks as Gale attempts to find the truth behind her crime. Was it a crime of passion? Pure evil? Or was Ruth taking the fall for someone else?
Studio Theatre were all set to stage The Thrill Of Love in 2020 when, with just one week to go, the first lockdown struck. With two years of preparation, and a change of director, one leading man and a lighting afficionado, Studio Theatre at last brings this dramatic thriller before an audience. As Chairman Anthony von Roretz writes in his programme notes, “From the pandemic ashes the Studio Theatre Phoenix rises” – and it is well worth the wait.
This is a perfect example of a small cast gelling together whilst each giving standout individual performances. Given the subject matter, you might not expect light-hearted moments – and yet each cast member deftly elicits every ounce of dark, pithy humour with skill and precision. Comic timing and delivery is almost faultless, breathing life and depth into the characters without descending into farce or exaggeration, which makes the tense and dramatic moments all the more impactful.
Jenny Groome is compelling as the notorious nightclub hostess, as Ruth’s outwardly apparent cold, calculating and clinical exterior masks her inner vulnerability. A warm, witty and sassy nature is revealed in her interactions with friend, fellow hostess and would-be model/actress Vickie Martin (the ever-excellent George Cotterill), whilst also revealing a sharpness and competitiveness that can so easily tarnish female friendships.
Rachel Fletcher is captivating as Sylvia Shaw, the nightclub manageress who takes Ruth and Vickie into her establishment. Utterly convincing, her deadpan delivery belies the twinkle in her eye as she deals with the Inspector’s questions, while her stern demeanour masks a more motherly and protective disposition towards her girls.
Add Joanne Flindell’s dulcet tones, empathetic portrayal and aptitude for comedy as hardworking, dependable and loyal charlady Doris to the mix and you have the ideal recipe for a quartet of memorable female protagonists.
It could be easy for Stew Taylor’s performance as Gale to be lost amongst the strong female leads, but (after a slightly nervous start) he shows admirable focus and responsiveness to the flashback events that evolve before his eyes. His observations on the case are divulged directly to the audience with a natural conversational tone that keeps the audience absorbed in events as they unfold and acts as a narrative lynchpin.
With period-perfect 1950s costumes (supplied by award-winning Foxtrot Vintage Clothing), a brilliant array of props (I’m sure the hanky will be there for the rest of the week!), and deceptively simple yet highly effective lighting and sound effects, the production elements hit the heights as much as the performances. Music from Billie Holiday covers the scene changes so well, adding context and atmosphere with the lyrics being particularly poignant to Ruth’s life and circumstances, while the scene changes themselves are choreographed so that the actors seamlessly make the transitions with complete sense and purpose.
Jill Redston may have stepped in to take up the directorial reins during lockdown, but she has skilfully overseen a production that is in turn warm, endearing, infuriating, heart-breaking and compelling on all levels. The way the staging and effects interweave really enhances all the twists and turns of the overall narrative. Her decision not to have a curtain call at the end is totally justified, but make no mistake, the cast and crew deserves to be applauded.
The Thrill Of Love runs at the Studio Theatre, Salisbury until Saturday 2 April (7.30pm each evening).