Shannon Hodge

Review: The Thrill Of Love

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The untold story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain at Sunderland's Royalty Theatre

The Thrill of Love

On 11 April 1955, Ruth Ellis shot and murdered her on-off lover David Blakely, she was found guilty and became the last woman to be hanged in Britain. There is no doubt that Ellis murdered him. However, Amanda Whittington’s play The Thrill Of Love explores the reasons why she did it.

Sirens and gun shots echo around the room as the play sets the scene with the hard-hitting moment Ellis shoots Blakely.

Abbi Laidler who plays Ruth Ellis manifests the 1950s look perfectly with her cat-eye glasses and victory-rolled locks. Ellis is a young working-woman, petite, blonde-hair and hungry for fame.

Along with her young friend Vickie Martin (played by Beth McAneny), Ellis’s journey to fame is clouded by the billowing smog of London’s nightclub scene – where there’s more than just a drink on offer. Working under the watchful eye of loud-mouthed nightclub manager, Sylvia Shaw (powerfully portrayed by Nikki Briggs), the naïve girls are thrown into a world of late nights entertaining punters, passion in their dingy bedsits (complete with 1950s wallpaper) and ultimately, danger.

The years of abuse Ellis suffered at the hands of men are illustrated throughout, with darker themes including abortion where Ellis says “the men never want to bag it up. Well, with me anyway” and an emotional scene (read: huge-lump-in-your-throat-scene) as she clutches her stomach crying, after suffering a miscarriage at the hands of her abusive lover and eventual victim, David Blakely.

We see Ellis lose complete control after a tragic car accident leaves her best friend Vickie Martin dead. A grieving Ellis stumbles across the stage, hipflask in hand, angrily blaming Martin before breaking down into tears to her only confidante: nightclub cleaner and motherly-figure Doris Judd (beautifully played by Lorna Breeze). This is the moment where Ellis’s raw emotions are laid out bare on stage, making it difficult to feel anything but sympathetic towards her.

But the final hit comes as Judd discovers Blakely made Ellis miscarry. An intense, but brilliantly acted, screaming session takes place on stage as Judd pleads with Ellis to leave her abusive lover. Trapped and in tears we see a much weaker, vulnerable, Ellis returning to Blakely’s abuse. Or so it seemed.

Following the death of David Blakely, Ellis lands herself in Holloway prison. An intuitive Inspector Gale and narrator (played by Billy Towers – who exceptionally remembered SO many lines), is desperately trying to find evidence to save her from death row. However, despite Ellis eventually revealing who gave her the gun and the multiple protests that sounded around the theatre: “Justice for Ellis” – she was executed on 13 July, 1955.

The Thrill Of Love is a play that brilliantly echoes themes of domestic violence and sexual exploitation. And, I believe playwright Amanda Whittington, director John Appleton and the actors, told Ruth Ellis’s story with power, empathy and honesty; providing a voice to people often unheard, both in the 1950s and now.

The Thrill Of Love is at Sunderland’s Royalty Theatre until March 28. Tickets are £8 or £6.50 for concessions.

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