Chris Eldon Lee reviews “The Thrill of Love” which is at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-Under-Lyme until Saturday 9th March.
This is a beautifully crafted piece of compelling theatre; a classy example of cast, directors and designers all singing from the same song sheet to create a moody insight into the tormented mind of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain.
The actual singing is entrusted to Billie Holiday who provides a recurrent, scratchy soundtrack to the drama; her bluesy lyrics underlining Ellis’s deeply flawed psychological swings that span the spectrum from Marilyn Munroe to Joan of Arc.
It’s a true story. 28-year-old Mrs Ellis was executed in 1955 for shooting her unfaithful racing driver lover David Blakely six times. There was little room for doubt. “It’s obvious when I shot him, I intended to kill him,” she admitted. But what we don’t know is how she came to the point of cold-blooded murder.
In Amanda Whittington’s immaculately researched new play (three years in the making) Detective Inspector Jack Gale (played a la Philip Marlowe by Mark Meadows) transcribes her confession but suspects a missing motive. The Ellis case has got under his skin and he circles the stage trying to make sense of it all. “She sings like a canary,” he says. “But I hear the static as well as the song.”
Where did she get the gun? Was she taking the rap for another lover?
The role of Ruth Ellis falls to Faye Castelow, a newcomer to the New Vic and this reviewer. She’s marvellous. I don’t often give credit to a casting associate, but Anji Carroll’s recommendation is perfect for the part.
Faye Castelow lives and breathes the pale, liquor and love-addled femme fatale, from her truculent nightclub dancing to the agony of yet another failed pregnancy and the mourning for her rare friendship with Vicky Martin (Maya Wasowicz) who pays with her life for her involvement with the swinging Cliveden set. It’s chilling to hear Ellis mention the darker side of Diana Dors and the immoral influence of Dr. Stephen Ward, who subsequently ensnared Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies. It is that kind of steamy, sex-driven underground world in which she fails to survive.
Having been shot dead in the opening seconds of the play, we never meet David Blakely – which serves to make him all the more shadowy. But we do see the injuries he has inflicted and hear how the chemistry between them could fuel an atomic bomb.
The script is exceptionally well edited and James Dacre’s production is steeped in the dark style of film noir with sharply dramatic opening and closing moments and unfaltering power throughout, accompanied by pinpoint precision sound and light.
Ruth Ellis courted fame and got it…but she ended up in Holloway, not Hollywood.
Her irresistible story has been told before but this time, I fancy, it’s here to last.
“The Thrill of Love” is already scheduled to transfer to Scarborough and then to London. After that, I would not be surprised if it starts to pop up in the repertoire of quality theatres across the country; the New Vic’s gift to the Nation.
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