Set in a world of nightclubs and characters shadier than a parasol’s pocket, The Thrill Of Love, which has just opened at the St James theatre, retells the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in the UK.
Far from being a murder mystery – we know the outcome before a gun has even been lifted, let alone had its trigger pulled – Amanda Whittington’s noir-ish drama looks at the chilling tale through the eyes of the women who surrounded Ellis, her friends and colleagues at the clubs at which she worked.
We caught up with the foursome of leading ladies – Faye Castelow, Katie West, Hilary Tones and Maya Wasovicz – to learn more about the show, their own tastes in evening establishments and which actresses they would most like to make their quartet a quintet.
How would you describe your character?
Castelow: Ruth is a real product of her childhood: she survived times of abject poverty, danced her way through the Blitz in Brixton and determined to make something better of herself than the social stereotype expected. She was driven by a fear of being never enough, wanting the bright lights and glamour that London promised to offer those girls that had the pluck to take it. She was a real survivor, brave certainly, but also a mother and a friend, fiercely loyal and generous.
West: Selfless, kind, grounded and a strong sense of integrity.
Tones: Sylvia Shaw is the manageress of the Court Club. Sylvia is a survivor, a down to earth yet sophisticated Londoner who lived through the Blitz and rationing and has come out of it battle scarred by love and loss but with her head held high and her make-up immaculate. She is an independent woman at a time of female dependency on men. She has a stiff upper lip with a soft centre buried deep and a great capacity for enjoying herself when her true self is allowed to surface which is, unfortunately, not often these days.
Wasowicz: My character is energetic, joyful, witty with a real sense of her own worth but is not particularly wise in the choices she makes to be successful
The show boasts a strong female cast. If you could choose one actress you admire to join the cast, who would it be?
Castelow: I would love Kathy Burke to join us, she has such strength and would add a real grit to our club scenes, but she’s also wonderfully vulnerable and I think, a real girl’s girl. Perfect to join our little Soho gang.
West: Unfortunately the actress I admire most is no longer with us. Giulietta Masina passed away in 1994, but if I could have anyone join the cast it would be her. She is definitely a hero of mine, the enormous heart she brings to all of her characters, you just fall in love with her. I admire her greatly.
Tones: I think Helen Mirren would fit right in at the Court Club. She could play Sylvia’s mentor; perhaps she learned the ropes from her just as Ruth did from Sylvia. Helen Mirren’s character in the film The Long Good Friday seems to me the 1980s equivalent of Sylvia, aspiring much higher and being much better educated. I think she could have told Sylvia where she went wrong with Ruth.
Wasowicz: I saw Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Laurie Metcalf was amazing. She played a very complex role with truth and grace. She’d be welcome anytime.
The Thrill Of Love is set in the sleazy-glamorous noir world of the 1950s, but if you could pick any historical era to visit, what would it be?
Castelow: Too hard. Can I have three? Ancient Rome, Regency London, 1920s Fitzrovia. Needless to say I would need to be rich for all of the above.
West: I would probably go back to a time when music really started to shake things up and became a sort of way life, it was the voice of change, so maybe the mid to late 60s. I can’t decide if I’d stay here in the UK or head to America where so much was changing as a result of people’s voices being heard.
Tones: I would love to visit fin de siècle London, a time of Oscar Wilde, Lily Langtry and the future Edward VII; oyster and champagne suppers after the opera or the music hall. Just as the 1950s were sleazy and glamorous, I can see parallels with the late 1800s with their stage door Johnnies, Prince Edward’s actress mistresses and subsequent opportunities for social climbing. A society going through a sea change ready for the 20th Century but in lace petticoats, corsets and feathers.
Wasowicz: I’m not sure. I’m quite into the present and making the most of that.
If you were managing a nightclub what type of nightclub would it be?
Castelow: My club would be a mixture of Mark’s Bar on Brewer Street, the original NYC secret prohibition clubs, Noël Coward on the piano and Beyonce after midnight. Nightly. Girls would definitely have to do long and boys in a three-piece please.
West: A secret den club, so if I told you I’d have to, you know…
Tones: I grew up watching Fred Astaire films and I assumed, when I grew up, I would visit chic night spots and drink champagne wearing bias cut satin dresses with feather boas and dance cheek to cheek with tuxedo-wearing gentlemen. I felt cheated; the clubs I visited were dark, loud and sweaty discos. I would like to open a Starlight Room on the roof of a landmark London building and enforce a strict 1930s dress code. I would expect impeccable manners from the staff and old school behaviour from the patrons with good manners sometimes exploded by exotic intoxication and dancing to big band jazz.
Wasowicz: My dream night club would have my favourite bands playing live. Maybe Foals, My Morning Jacket, Jagwar Ma, Alt-J. Big sounds made intimate. I’d encourage new talent too. To drink, amazing Old Fashioneds and a variety of vodka. Small round tables with table service on the balcony around the stage, overlooking a dance floor. Moody lighting and Polish and Russian food. Good sausages, pickles, pierogi. Open till the silly small hours. Somewhere in East London.
What are you expecting from the London run?
Castelow: I’m looking forward to bringing Ruth home, really having a London audience behind our London story.
West: I think there’s definitely the potential in London for people to see the show who may have known Ruth Ellis, or frequented the clubs, and remember those times and the characters mentioned.
Tones: I’m thrilled to be in London, the natural home for this play set in the West End and peopled with girls from the East End. The St James is the perfect venue, easy access, great restaurant and bar, the perfect setting for Ruth and Sylvia and the patrons of the Court Club.
Wasowicz: I just hope the audience in London know where Egham is. I mention it a lot.
What will you be doing in your spare time?
Castelow: Ermm… spare time? What’s that?! I’m desperate to see some new plays and musicals, The Book Of Mormon definitely. Just see friends. Oh and the Bowie exhibition!
West: Catching up with me old pals.
Tones: My spare time will be spent catching up with London life. Firstly I will visit the V&A for the David Bowie exhibition.
Wasowicz: There’s so much to do in London. I can’t wait to see Light Show at the Hayward Gallery.
What can audiences expect from the show?
Castelow: Love, laughter, friendship, heartache, desperation and redemption.
West: A heartbreaking story of a woman bound by the rules of her time, driven crazy with love.
Tones: This is a very moving play written from the woman’s perspective by Amanda Whittington. The play works on many levels, from the expressive voice of Billie Holliday, through the light-hearted early days in the Court Club, full of high hopes and witty banter to the painful downfall of Ruth; devastated by heartbreak and domestic violence. Audiences will laugh, cry, sympathise and be horrified, go through the mill of love to experience The Thrill Of Love.
Wasowicz: Audiences should expect to be drawn into the club world of the 1950s where girls had ambitions and hopes that didn’t always manifest as they had imagined. Amanda Wittington has written a play of heart and force where women tell their side of a well-known story of violence and death.