To several generations Ruth Ellis is the archetypal femme fatale, the woman scorned who shot her unfaithful lover and was hanged for murder – the last woman in Britain to be so.
In her new play The Thrill of Love, Amanda Whittington attempts to go behind these cliches to give a more rounded, sympathetic portrait of the 28-year-old peroxide blonde making her way in post-war London.
Ellis’ victim, upper class racing driver David Blakely, is left off-stage – an interesting decision which means sympathy remains entirely with Ellis – as Blakely is seen as a kind of shadowy concept and not the flesh and blood Ellis fired six shots at.
There was more sympathy, in fact, for the passerby accidentally shot in the hand.
Whittington wants her audience to see working class divorcee mum Ellis as the victim – a victim of prejudice, domestic violence and a savage justice system. There is also more than a hint of Ellis’ mental fragility including her obsession with being a film star and finding a knight in shining armour – which she was convinced was Blakely.
Inspector Jack Gale, the real detective who investigated the case, represents the audience – asking the questions and willing Ellis to offer more of a defence as to why she shot Blakely.
It is all rather depressing stuff - as the play progresses darkly to the gallows. The play has a film noir quality and a haunting score provided by the voice of Billie Holliday singing T’aint Nobody’s Business if I Do and I’ll Be Seeing You. It is a cry for understanding.
Faye Castelow is outstanding as the fragile Ellis who finds herself a cause celebre. It is her portrayal - tender, emotional, bewildered, that keeps the audience mesmerised by the true story – and wishing its outcome had been different,
It is at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until Saturday, daily at 7.30pm.