“I am guilty. I’m a little confused.” The Thrill Of Love at The Caxton Theatre

The words of Ruth Ellis to the off duty policeman who arrested her outside The Magdala pub in April 1955 after she had used a revolver to kill her lover David Blakely. The crime is played out in the opening scene of The Thrill Of Love by Amanda Whittington, which retells the story of the last woman to be executed in Britain.

As post war austerity draws to an end the private clubs of Soho and Knightsbridge are full of well to do punters and there is always a place for a good looking hostess. It’s a world of seedy glamour, of fast cars, strong drink and seamed stockings and the new production at The Caxtons recreates that world to remarkable effect on a stripped back stage painted prison grey and with the shadow of window bars cast over the set. There are only a few pieces of spartan furniture on stage, emphasising the similarities between the tawdry clubs around which the action plays out, the spartan bedsit in which Ellis miscarries, having been punched in the stomach by Blakely, and the condemned cell at Holloway (just pull the wardrobe aside to reveal the door to the gallows chamber).

The play investigates the damage that love can do and the suffering that some people are prepared to endure in its name. A crackly recording of Billy Holiday sets the scene and Chloey Rose as Ruth Ellis brings just the right mixture of brass and vulnerability to her portrayal of Ruth, a small town girl from North Wales who has spent the war dancing every night and hopes to move into the glittering world of British film celebrity like her idol Diana Dors.

Drawn inexorably to men who will do her harm she seems to be marked for victimhood from the start and although the play unquestionably doubts whether or not she should have died as she did it does not make her out to be a heroine or a martyr. She’s a severely damaged person, incapable of pulling herself back from the brink, as frustrating to Ruairidh Greig’s dogged, down to earth police detective as she is to her friends.

Greig’s old school copper is an omnipresent narrator/character, moving serenely through flashbacks, questioning Ellis to try to discover the truth, (particularly about exactly where she acquired the gun) and persuade her to co-operate with the many appeals for clemency launched on her behalf by others. She gives him short shrift almost to the end, by which time it’s too late.

There’s fantastic support from the three actresses who play Ellis’s friends, Marie Barker as the hard as nails and heart of gold Sylvia Shaw, Louise Blakey as comrade in arms Vickie Martin and Claire Wright as charlady and good girl Doris Judd and under the direction of Cathy Bennett-Ryan they effectively summon up the spirit of an era long before #MeToo, when casual violence against women was part of everyday life.

After a run of comedies it’s nice to see the Caxtons taking on a more serious piece of theatre for a change and we’d highly recommend a visit.

The Thrill Of Love is at the Caxton Theatre from Saturday 20th January to Saturday 27th January. Tickets available through www.caxtontheatre.com or on 01472 323111.

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