Brighton Year-Round 2019
Ann Atkins directs and Steven Adams designs the set lighting and sound design – both operated by Mimi Goddard. Set painting by Tom Williams and Janet White, construction by Rob Punter, Stephen Evans, Joseph Bentley. Costumes are by Margaret Skeet.
Amanda Whittington’s one of the most revived contemporary playwrights: the strongest amateur theatres love her work too. No wonder; her stylish, extremely deft plays feature strong leading roles for women in plays about women. More, they strike feminist storylines both compelling and funny. Her 2013 The Thrill of Love premiered at St James Theatre and never seems off the stage.
Though the drama about the last woman hanged for murder in July 1955 shrewdly focuses on Ruth Ellis’s friendships with women girdled about by men, it’s framed by the detective Jack Gale – a fine-grained Culaan Smyth (this NVT stalwart surprisingly making his BLT debut). Gale never takes Ellis’ guilt at either hers or anyone else’s word. With his tough-tender Brixton-man-turned-soldier-turned-detective, we have Ellis’ unexpected male complement: a man who came up the hard way. There’s class as well as instinctive sympathy. Smyth’s deliberating copper, worrying at the truth anchors the one male role.
It’s Victoria Thompson’s Ruth Ellis we first see. Back to us, she dresses slinkily and sexily to Billie Holiday, the soundtrack of this production. Despite her shimmying, she packs a gun.
Thompson’s a force of fragile ferocity. Her Ellis has notably clipped her accent into an RP that rarely gapes even under pressure. Appearing first icily calm, she slips into a flurry of exhaustion, and in flashbacks exuberant – particularly with Keziah Israel’s Vicki Martin. This initially masks Ellis’s spiralling dependency on drugs and alcohol: abortion’s followed by beatings and finally a miscarriage. Thompson’s drunken renderings, her slips into Ellis’s physical pain are shudderingly convincing.
First arresting Victoria Thompson’s trance-like then explosive Ellis, Gale’s role echoes Alfieri’s in A View From the Bridge – only he’s more involved. Their scenes – and his with others – deftly sashays with an earlier time-line. Gale’s on Ellis’s side trying to probe for the real progenitor, but she’s willed her own death. Even though she pleads as instructed ‘not guilty’ she admits everything.
Ann Atkins directs and Steven Adams designs the set lighting and sound design – both operated by Mimi Goddard. It features the club Sylvia Shaw runs with tired-looking mahogany chairs upstage and farther down – which space with a few light shifts doubles as everything from a bedsit to the Old Bailey to police cells, stage left. There’s a deft touch: snow falling downstage as three freezing women attend Golders Green Crematorium in a freezing January 1955. Set painting’s by Tom Williams and Janet White, construction by Rob Punter, Stephen Evans, Joseph Bentley.
Sound deploys gunshots as leitmotifs but importantly too, as a note-series that modulates into music and other elements. It’s evocative, also utilising Billie Holiday. Period costumes are by Margaret Skeet. Ellis’s underwear and the young women’s dresses are notably good.
There are some exquisite touches in the women who love Ellis: Carol Hatton sparks and nuances the tough-tender Sylvia Shaw into life; the hard-as-nail-extensions decent manager who makes Ellis manager of another joint The Little Club, which Ellis fails in. And even when Ellis is in prison, after berating her, Shaw then offers a safe berth when she comes out. Hatton’s thoroughly convincing in a slap and sleaze role: though it’s a conventional foil, it holds a few depths.
Keziah Israel is a funny, forthright Vicki Martin (real name Valerie Mewes) the real-life friend trying to reclaim Ruth from her downward spiral before dying in a car accident. Israel’s unabashed go-getter first bursts chirpily on the scene asking for a job, shows she can handle mental arithmetic super-quick and knows how men add up too. Even how quick they are: ‘he don’t take long…. I learned that last night.’ Israel angles to perfection Martin’s cocked look, her accent and sheer joy. Israel exudes a fierce radiance.
Though Martin soon moves on to being the mistress of a maharajah it’s her attempts to return and rescue Ellis that tells. Whittington’s portrayal of fast friendship is painfully touching: particularly when Ellis drunkenly rejects her. Later Thompson’s reaction to tragedy is a painful recognition of how much Martin means to Ellis.
Claire Lewis’s superb Doris Judd, the char girl, valiantly tries to keep Ellis together too. Judd has seemingly no interest in the demi-mondaine life of her colleagues, but we learn that’s not entirely true. Her hesitant respectfulness ‘Mrs Ellis’ take a while to become ‘Ruth’ at Ellis’s insistence.
Even the solicitor – also Israel – suddenly reverts to her Martin role in a hug as Ellis is led off, fulfilling Elis’s prediction that Vicki’s all around her: standing in for the women who enfold Ellis from her self-immolation on a world of men.
The most touching scene preludes the hanging: Ellis asks to dance with Gale ‘while I’m still flesh and blood’. It’s then she dictates to him what really happened. Desmond the other jealous lover put her up to it when she was distraught after a violently-induced miscarriage; gave her the gun, drove her there. If she takes the rap, he’ll look after her son. This is ‘for the record’ but the Home Office reject it as mitigating circumstances. One of their own’s been killed by a blonde tart. Desmond’s fled.
It is though Thompson’s relations with the three other women actors where Whittington’s writing affords unforgettable chemistry. A superb revival, and the best production of this popular play I’ve seen.