Stars explained: * A production of no real merit
with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not
enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real
life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A
good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely
achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a
great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major
flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic
which lifts theatre to another plane.
Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, model, hostess, mistress and prostitute
The Thrill of Love
Highbury Theatre Centre
RUTH Ellis is a name that still resonates 62 years on; there is still an uneasiness, a questioning, even a regret about not so much her conviction, but her punishment, the last woman to be hanged in Britain.
That she was guilty there is no doubt, before witnesses she shot her lover David Blakely four times, and missed him twice, outside the Magdala pub in Hamstead on Easter Sunday, 1955. Until then Ruth Ellis, originally Ruth Neilson from Rhyl, was known only in the seedy world of gentlemen’s private members clubs where the rich could indulge in their baser pleasures.
From that moment she was a household name, a celebrity, a sensation with her own chapter in history.
She had found nude modelling paid better than shop and factory work and from there she graduated to hostess, willing to sell far more than drinks, at The Court Club in Mayfair where she became best friends with Vickie Martin, who was to become a protégé of Stephen Ward, a regular at the club where he was to later meet Christine Keeler, but that is another story.
Amanda Whittingham’s 2013 play opens with the killing in a stylised staging followed by Det Insp Jack Gale questioning Ruth. Despite her admission of guilt he is sure there is more to the crime and with a cast of three more of her friends, the life of Ruth Ellis is slowly dissected.
Emma Woodcock gives us an infuriating Ellis, a woman who will say or do nothing to aid her defence and a woman who almost enjoys being the victim, leaving and then always returning to her then husband, abusive divorced dentist, George Ellis, and then later clinging to the violent, womanising Blakely, despite also being the mistress of Desmond Cussen.
Woodcock is at times flighty, at times even prudish, and at times emotionally a wreck, such as when Vickie dies in unlucky car crash no 13, or when Blakely doesn’t appear as promised. We watch her slow descent from confident hostess to needy, insecure mistress, lover and, let’s be honest, whore, fuelled by a diet of booze and pills. She shows no remorse for the murder, and does nothing to avoid execution, preferring it to 25 years in jail, and goes to her death with more calm assurance and dignity than she has shown in most of her life.
Emma Woodcock as Ruth Ellis, Robert Hicks as DI Gale and Pip Oliver as Sylvia. Picture: Alastair Barnsley
Robert Hicks is the epitome of a Met DI of the 50s - remember Raymond Francis as Lockhart of the Yard? Nothing flashy, no good cop, bad cop, just an honest detective seeking the truth as to why Ellis committed the murder. He is not uneasy about the guilt, just the circumstances and this is a woman he believes does not deserve the death penalty, trying to find a reason to reduce the penalty to life. A well measured performance.
Which leaves us with the three women in Ellis’s life, Sylvia Shaw, the hard as nails manager of The Court Club, but in the romantic tradition of such a calling, she is a tart with a heart played with a confident and, at times, concerned air in a convincing performance by Pip Oliver.
Then there is Vickie, who arrives fresh from nude modelling to start a career as a hostess, seeing it as a path to fame and fortune, declaring she will go home in a silver Rolls Royce. Siobhan Kilmartin mixes ambition with vulnerability as the newcomer and you can almost see her weighing up the cost and benefits when she is told of the ways to make more, lots more money by accommodating customers in, should we say, a more horizontal fashion.
And finally there is Doris, played by Julia Mewis, the char, who cleans up the mess, both physical and mental, in the clubs. When Ruth is suffering after losing her baby after being punched in the stomach by Blakely, it's Doris who stays with her. When Ruth is in bits at the funeral of Vickie, again it’s Doris who is picking up the pieces. Another convincing performance.
The play is a series of flashbacks, the build-up to the killing and director Laura McLaurie has made the staging almost semi-judicial with Sylvia, Vickie and Doris sitting in a row at the rear of the stage, almost like a jury, or witnesses, called to give evidence in their own little scenes. The setting from Malcolm Robertshaw is simple, with a bar that swivels from The Court Club to The Little Club, the club where Ellis was later installed as manager, a table and chairs. Simple, but like the direction, effective.
Breaking the vignettes up with Billie Holiday songs, including the once banned sad Cole Porter song about prostitution, Love for Sale, helped set the scene and the period. The sound, supposedly using an old automatic record player, is well balanced by Tony Reynolds with lighting, from Jackson Gleeson, breaking up the stage into its individual parts.
DI Gale tries to persuade Ruth to tell him who supplied the
DI Gale tries to persuade Ruth to tell him who supplied the gun
Full marks for
authentic looking costumes as well, especially Sylvia’s turban and
housecoat. It all helped to set the scene of smoky, sleazy nightclubs.
Although the play never tries to justify or even understand the killing,
difficult as Ellis never attempts to explain or understand it herself,
it does reach a conclusion, the one dictated by history, that is both
unsatisfactory and gives that feeling of unease, amplified by the three
friends donning masks as if justice is faceless. Ellis was hanged on 13
July, 1955 at Holloway prison. She was just 28.
The hanging, incidentally, is represented in a dignified way with a minimum of fuss – which perhaps mirrors the actual execution by Albert Pierrepoint which took just 12 second.
There were huge petitions and a public outcry about the decision to hang Ellis. The police tried to find evidence that would, if not exonerate, at least commute, the prosecution made representations and even the trial judge, Mr Justice Havers, grandfather of actor Nigel, had written to the home secretary Major Gwilym Lloyd-George, younger son of David Lloyd George, recommending a reprieve for what was a crime of passion. Lloyd-George refused every plea, a decision which, it is said, made the then Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, uncomfortable. A crime passionnel in most countries is treated with a certain degree of leniency, reducing charges to second degree murder, manslaughter, or, even less. But not in Britain.
It is remarkable that the play manages to convey the same unease so long after the event, an event which, although not the sole reason, was a strong force in the abolition of capital punishment 10 years later. Of the 145 women sentenced to death last century, just 14 were actually hanged. But it was not only the hanging of women which people found unpalatable but the whole concept of executions.
Highbury has found an interesting play affording a fascinating look behind the mask of Ruth Ellis which is well acted by the cast of five in a well paced drama peeling away the layers of a complex character.. We know the murderer and the result, but there is still a mystery to solve and this goes some way to answering at least some of the questions. To 25-03-17.
The tragic tale of Ruth Ellis did not end there. Ruth’s mother, Berta, tried to kill herself and, although found alive, never recovered, living out her days in mental impairment. George Ellis, by now an alcoholic, killed himself in 1958. Ellis had two illegal abortions and a miscarriage but as a 17-year-old she became pregnant by a Canadian soldier towards the end of the war, having a son, Andy, who was ten when she was hanged. He committed suicide after desecrating her grave in 1982 The trial judge, Sir Cecil Havers, had sent money every year for Andy's upkeep, while Christmas Humphreys, the prosecution counsel at Ellis's trial, paid for his funeral.
Ellis also had a daughter, Georgina, with George, finally leaving and divorcing him when he refused to acknowledge paternity. She was three when Ellis was executed. She became a bunny girl, and a hostess, dated George Best and was romantically linked with Richard Harris, and, with evidence that Ellis was recovering from a miscarriage and was on strong sedatives at the time of the murder, was battling to clear her mother’s name, reducing her murder conviction to manslaughter, when she died of cancer aged 50 in December 2001. The case reached the Court of Appeal in 2003 but the the appeal was turned down with the court stating it could only rule on the law as it stood in 1955.
Her son, Stephen Beard, Ellis's grandson,
is an actor and played Archie Carpenter in Hollyoaks for two years.
Her son, Stephen Beard, Ellis's grandson, is an actor and played Archie Carpenter in Hollyoaks for two years.