The Thrill of Love, Shaftesbury Arts Centre

THE first performance of Shaftesbury Arts Centre’s remarkable production of Amanda Whittington’s The Thrill of Love co-incided with the exact moment of the 69th anniversary of Ruth Ellis’s shooting of her abusive lover David Blakely, which famously led to the last execution of a woman in Britain.

The forensic play, with its cast of four women and one man, is a popular choice with amateur theatrical societies and has also been toured professionally since its premiere in 2013. There are already four reviews in the FTR archive, and all were very well done.

Hopes were high for Diana Banham’s production at Shaftesbury, which uniquely incorporated an ever-present nightclub singer (the perfectly judged Rebecca Chambers) performing the songs of Billie Holliday. In recent years, the well equipped and comfortable intimate Arts Centre theatre space in Bell Street has staged many and varied shows, but (and apologies for writing this) none of them outstandingly memorable. Until now. This production takes the Arts Centre’s Music and Drama group into new territory – and long may they stay there.

Every single thing about this production is deeply thought out and delivered, from the ephemera of the set to the movement, costumes, the music and the painful reality of the characterisations. The director has delved into the period and her exceptional cast has created entirely recognisable and convincing characters, not the semi-caricature tarts-with-hearts-of-gold-gone-wrong that must be the easy temptation. I thought I knew the play well, but these performance were a revelation.

Helen Kunze’s Ruth is a masterpiece of determination, from the shocked, clipped responses of the woman who has just shot the man she loves to the resigned victim, keeping faith and secrets to the last. Every movement is perfectly judged, from the feet walking into new clothes to the tiny tic of the face – and of course the hair. Even the drunken funeral is dialled back and plausible.

Charley Belles brings a vulnerable centre to the hard club manager, constantly at the behest of “Mori”, the unseen man who calls all the tunes. Jemma Hurd-Kirby inhabits the role of Doris, the kindly club cleaner whose loyalty to Ruth is unbounded. She does it with vocal inflections and perfectly measured gestures.

Rebecca Foley, who notes in the programme that she is the same age as the woman she plays, Vickie Martin (born Valerie Mewes in Staines, aka Egham). She breezes into the club bright-eyed for a new future in films, but like so many of her colleagues, falls in with the wrong crowd.

The one man in the play is the (invented) Det Insp Jack Gale, played by Dave Cromwell. As soon as he meets Ruth Ellis, in the aftermath of the shooting, he knows she is a victim and that someone else not only provided the weapon, a Smith and Wesson, but also oiled and primed it ready for the firing. But all his tireless efforts are not enough to persuade the Home Secretary to commute the sentence, and Ruth goes to meet Mr Pierrepoint – a man she had only known before from the stories in the tabloids.

Diana Banham’s version ends with a heartbreakingly poignant moment, as Ruth and Gale dance in the condemned cell.

If you possibly can, go and see this production, on until Saturday 13th at the Arts Centre.





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