A detective story where there is no question as to who pulled the trigger may be unusual but, as James Dacre’s production of The Thrill Of Love proves, it can prove no less intriguing a thriller.
Amanda Whittington’s story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain for the murder of her unfaithful lover, is one of a woman who expected to end up in Hollywood but instead found herself in Holloway. From the first scene in which we meet Faye Castelow as Ellis, pale, shaking but composed and resigned to her fate, to her time as a platinum-haired hostess in seedy high-class clubs, Whittington paints a complicated picture of a fragile woman who can throw a punch, a woman who never allows herself to be the victim or the villain.
This is a story told from the viewpoint of the women who knew Ruth best, but whose statements would not be found on any official records. Set in the red velvet, smoke-tinged faded glamour of The Little and Court Clubs, it is a world where no questions are asked and the dress code is strictly black tie and bullet bras.
It’s also a world that the vivacious Ruth makes look fun at first; the pocket sized, flawless skinned, good-time girl, the Marilyn Monroe of the West End to her ambitious colleague Vickie Martin’s (May Wasowicz) Audrey Hepburn, the pair overseen by the world-weary, hard faced manager Sylvia Shaw who is as much mother to them as madam.
Irresistible Mad Men style with glamorous dresses, packed drinks trolleys and Daniella Beattie’s stunning flash bulb lighting design create a sense of decadent style, while their tough exteriors, witty come backs and breakfasts of raw eggs and Lea & Perrins give the impression they are impenetrable forces to be reckoned with. But Ruth’s bruises, addictions and emotionally cracking façade do not.
Castelow is a compelling ball of energy as the fated woman, whirling and fizzing around the stage like a rocket until her inevitable crash when she becomes smaller before your eyes, her own eyes glassing over in a terrified but accepting resignation of her controversial end.
Robert Gwilym is the only man in the piece, playing the sympathetic detective Jack Gale who narrates the production with language straight out of a 1950s detective novel. Dacre’s accomplished direction takes inspiration from this metaphor-rich, old-fashioned vernacular, creating a stylised, sometimes whimsical, film noir-inspired production.
The Thrill Of Love may not answer all the questions that surround Ruth’s infamous case, but a history of horrific and often accepted abuse makes it crystal clear just why she believed herself unworthy of being a mother, a monogamous spouse and, inevitably, unworthy of being saved.