THE cast at Studio Theatre in Salisbury waited for two years to put on their production of Amanda Whittington’s 2013 Ruth Ellis play, The Thrill of Love – and the result proves that it was well worth the wait.
The facts that led up to the 1955 murder, which resulted in the last woman in England to be hanged, make for a richly faceted and incisively argued drama. The production was due on stage at the Salisbury theatre in March 2020, just in time to be scuppered by the first lockdown as Covid flooded the country.
Two years on, it’s the same cast, but for the loss of the original detective inspector Jack Gale (Phil Howard ) and his replacement by the excellent Stew Taylor, and original director Tim Greathead, whose cinematically atmospheric set designs remain.
Into the director’s shoes comes Jill Redston, who says her “comfort zone” is usually bounded by a traditional box set and conventional three-act plays. She grasped the chance to direct this open-plan two-acter, played against the music of Billie Holliday, with gusto and huge insight.
Her brilliant cast – Jenny Groome as nightclub hostess Ruth Ellis, Rachel Fletcher as manageress Sylvia, George Cotterill as Vicki Martin, the aspiring actress, and Joanne Flindell as the dependable Doris Judd, as well as Stew Taylor’s DI – skillfully capture the desperate sleaziness of the time immediately following Second World War, when women suddenly see the sky as the limit to their aspirations.
With casual nightclub conversations about Diana Dors, Stephen Ward, Stirling Moss and other racing drivers, Sylvia’s “girls” were there to do the bidding of the clubs’ various members, always under the financial eye of the (unseen) Murray.
Ruth Ellis, already a divorcee and mother, fell for louche wastrel and would-be racing driver
David Blakely, who fleeced her, beat her, cheated on her and constantly disappointed her. She shot him dead, and immediately admitted her guilt. She was hanged on 15th July 1955 at Holloway, to a public outcry that continued until the abolition of capital punishment a decade later.
Amanda Whittington invented the character of Gale to take the audience through the sad and sordid background to the murder. The actors of the Studio Theatre company rose to the challenge. Rachel Fletcher’s Sylvia was an absolutely recognisable character, powerful in her job but at the same time totally dependent on the man who held the purse-strings, devoted to her “girls” but watching helplessly as they fell into ever more dangerous relationships in their quest for fame, fortune or even reliable companionship.
Jenny Groome makes Ellis a realistically obsessed woman for whom murder and her own retributive death are the only choice. Joanne Flindell’s Doris adds another layer to the tightly stratified class system that controlled (or should I say controls) the London demi-monde, and George Cotterill captures the ambition of Vicki Martin, a footnote in the story of Ruth Ellis.
The Thrill of Love is on at the Ashley Road Studio Theatre until 2nd April. You won’t see a more compelling production of this remarkable play, so get a ticket if you can.