The Theatreguide.London Review
St James Theatre Spring 2013
Ruth Ellis killed her lover David Blakely in 1955, offered no real defence at her trial, and was the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Amanda Whittington's play hopes to tell us more about her than that, but doesn't really, and thus is a bit of a disappointment both as character insight and as drama.
Whittington does fill in some of the well-known background – Ellis was a hostess at the sort of after-hours club that generally didn't have the girls going home alone, but while some of her co-workers were clever or lucky enough to connect with rich men, Ellis fell obsessively in love with a loser and, when he began to stray, shot him.
All the playwright tells us beyond that is the previously posited theory that another of Ellis's lovers got her drunk, encouraged her depression, gave her the gun and pointed her at Blakely, effectively using her to get rid of his rival.
(Programme notes do offer a lot of new facts about the story, including the revelation that Blakely was bisexual and Ellis may have been jealous of a never-identified male rival, but oddly none of this finds its way into the play.)
Without new information or theories, what we could hope for from the play would be a dramatic imagining of Ellis's character that would offer some understanding. But the Ellis of Whittington's play has only two faces to show us – the happy, almost manic party girl and the listless, near-catatonic killer and prisoner awaiting her death.
How she got from one to the other, what it was about Blakely (never seen in the play) that attracted and obsessed her, what (except perhaps for that manipulative other man) pushed her over the edge, and why she was so unapologetic and so resigned to her fate afterwards – about these the play has nothing to say beyond admitting that they are mysteries.
The drama is more successful in evoking the world Ellis lived in, and scenes between her, a motherly madam, a more ambitious and successful girl and a supportive maid do capture some of the spirit of young women on the make in the first boom of the post-war decade.
As Ellis, Faye Castelow nicely captures the bubbly energy of the chronologically earlier scenes and the deadness of spirit of the later ones, but is no more successful than the playwright in taking us from A to B.
As a (fictional) detective investigating the murder Robert Gwilym serves his plot function well while conveying the idea that there is a haunting mystery here that the play is not going to solve for us.
Hilary Tones, Maya Wasowicz and Katie West provide functional support, and James Dacre's direction nicely evokes time and place without conquering the problems or filling in the gaps of the text.
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