“You’re famous at last,” says the nightclub manageress bitterly, as she visits her former employee Ruth Ellis in Holloway Prison at the end of Amanda Whittington’s play. And she is right. Ellis is famous, notorious at least. She will be known for all time as the last woman to be hanged in Britain (in 1955): the peroxide blonde who shot her lover David Blakely at point-blank range.
Why did she do it? And why did she plead not guilty yet offer little defence? These are the questions that preoccupy the fictitious Inspector Gale, who sleuths away during the course of Whittington’s play like a character from a 1950s detective novel. But the truth probably eludes logic, and so Whittington helps us towards understanding Ruth’s state of mind by painting in the world she frequented.
There’s a seedy film-noir glamour to the stage world she and director James Dacre create, where ruched scarlet curtains, flashbulbs and a crackly Billie Holiday soundtrack evoke the drink-stewed intensity of London’s private clubs. Here Ruth and other hopefuls can paint their nails, mix it with wealthy men and dream of Hollywood. But the reality is a society where abuse is rife, abortion is illegal, contraception limited, women’s liberation a distant glimmer on the horizon and domestic violence not discussed. Today, the beatings that Ruth suffered at the hands of Blakely alone would be taken into account when trying her, not to mention the previous abuse from her husband and father, or the miscarriages she endured. Her execution emerges as an indictment not just of the justice system but of 1950s society.
Whittington’s play and Dacre’s staging conjure a hazy, half-lit world in which grubby reality keeps poking through the fantasy and the gin. It’s a tricky mood to sustain, however, and the production falters sometimes. It presents drawbacks too: the style elbows out any real opportunity to get close to Ruth and her inner thoughts. Instead we surmise her state of mind from the experiences we see and those at which she hints.
But where the play and production do shine is in depicting the close bond between the women on stage. Behind the hard-bitten pragmatism of the manager (Hilary Tones) and the romantic day-dreaming of the charwoman (Katie West), there is tenderness and support. And Faye Castelow excels as Ruth: brittle, vivacious, vulnerable and deeply damaged.