Science versus instinct: modern values, meet a historic crime.
- Stars (out of 5) – 5
- One-sentence review – Dramatic proof beyond doubt that the real-life hanging of Ruth Ellis can fuel topical debates 64 years on.
- Good for people who – like those episodes of “The Crown” where Prince Philip “somehow” had his portrait painted by the organizer of a sex ring.
- Bad for people who – are in the mood for “A Christmas Carol”.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…
Ask yourselves: if your friend shot her boyfriend in a fit of jealousy, would that make her guilty of premeditated murder?
You may answer “yes”. But ask yourselves this in turn: if she’d suffered years of abuse at his hands, would she still deserve to hang?
The first question faced an Old Bailey jury in 1955, after model and nightclub hostess Ruth Ellis shot and killer her partner David Blakely. Before the concept of “diminished responsibility” was recognized by the courts, it must’ve seemed like an open and shut case – and indeed, after 20 minutes of deliberation, she was found guilty and became the last woman to be hanged in the UK.
However – as Woodley Theatre reveal in their production of Amanda Whittington’s “The Thrill of Love” – there was much more to the case than the jury took into account, which subsequently led to sweeping changes in the legal system (not least the abolition of the death penalty). But to what extent should the “mitigating circumstances” have impacted on the verdict?
Opening with the act of murder itself, Detective Jack Gale (Mikhail Franklin) subsequently questions Ruth Ellis (Susan Westgate) regarding the shooting. She is lucid and honest, outlining her planned strategy to kill David Blakely.
But Gale tugs at a loose thread in her narrative – her ownership of an oiled and serviced revolver. Where did she get it? Who gave it to her, and why?
Faced with an unconvincing answer from Ellis, he takes it upon himself to investigate further – and through visits to Ruth’s former nightclubs and conversations with her mentor Sylvia Shaw (Heidi Ashton) and friend/helper Doris Judd (Ellie Shortt), bears witness through their recollections to the series of events which led to the murder.
In the wrong hands, this could make for a jumpy and disjointed production – we make 18 leaps between scenes and events, with many prop and actor transitions. But in a technical masterstroke, director John Burbedge covers these switches with period music and projections of 1950s London photography. This affords us a chance to digest and reflect upon what we’ve just watched before the next round of information is presented – while doing a marvelous job of transporting us back in time. Technical shows are notoriously hard to do, let alone to do well – many actors and backstage managers will tell you tales of projectors failing mid-scene or music cues drowning out the actors – so the fact that this has been executed to a consistently high standard is a credit to Woodley Theatre.
The actors too deserve applause for holding the audience’s attention for what could otherwise be a dry re-run of a high-profile case. Susan Westgate does an admirable job of capturing Ellis’s brittle glamour, showing both the pain of domestic abuse and the moth-to-a-flame tendencies of someone who refuses to give up a partner who really isn’t good for them. Heidi Ashton’s Sylvia, by contrast, is the long-suffering parent or friend that many of us will relate to – the person who watches a loved one steadily destroying themselves but feels powerless to arrest their descent into the maelstrom.
Ellie Shortt’s Doris in turn shows us the devotion that a charismatic figure can inspire in the people around them, her clear love of Ruth slowly eroding her own personal life. Her skilled delivery also injects some humour into the play, preventing the subject matter from becoming overwhelming. Meanwhile, rival society girl Vickie Martin is ably performed by Chelsi Challis, providing a counterpoint to Ruth’s dominant status in the nightclubs and prefiguring her downfall.
But it is Mikhail Franklin’s Jack Gale that brings the whole show together. Acting as Virgil to the audience’s Dante, he guides us through the horror show of Ellis’s life – his defeated yet determined demeanor probably a reflection of how most people will feel when they see the way Ellis was treated, and the impact this had for her friends, family, and the law in general.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…
Having seen the evidence before you, you are asked to decide – does it establish Ellis’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt?
Ultimately, the play allows the audience to judge Ruth’s moral responsibility for the crime, and to ask wider questions of society – was the way that she, as a woman, was treated 64 years ago morally right? And to what extent does the treatment she received still continue today?
It’s undoubtedly a topical question – ticket sales are strong, and the performance I watched generated a lot of conversation – but it is not a question with a clear-cut answer.
We never witness the abuse, you see – the script cleverly removes victim Blakely from the equation. All we (and the 1955 jury) have to go on is Ellis’s account, and her actions. She displays obsessive jealousy towards Blakely. She displays no hesitation is confessing her intent to murder Blakely. And her closing words to his parents (“I shall die loving your son”) are chilling from a certain point of view.
Society and the law has moved on since then – but later cases like that of Lavinia Woodward, who was given a suspended sentence on the grounds of “mitigating circumstances” after a brutal drug-fuelled assault against her innocent boyfriend in 2017, demonstrate that the quandary faced in 1955 is by no means a thing of the past when opinion swings too far in the other direction.
“The Thrill Of Love” runs from the 26th– 30thNovember at Woodley Theatre. Tickets are available at http://www.woodleytheatre.org