Highly Strung


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 22nd February, 2013

Amanda Whittington’s new play concerns the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK.  It is perhaps this status as the last woman to pay the death penalty that adds to Ellis’s notoriety and allure.  Even in the dark days of the 1950s, her sentence was considered an injustice but all the protests and campaigns proved to be in vain.

The play focuses on the last few years of Ellis’s shortened life, her work in a ‘gentlemen’s club’ and her relationship with David Blakely – although in Whittington’s version of events, we do not see the man himself.  He is a shadow, an off-stage presence, haunting Ellis as the detective inspector unravelling her story takes us back in time from the interrogation room to the club.  He, the detective, works as a narrator, linking scenes with information, and painting scenery with poetic details.  This works very well for the most part – we are caught up in a maelstrom, as Ellis was caught up, and there are moments when the action becomes surreal and nightmarish.

Jonathan Fensom’s design sets us in the world of the club.  Thick red carpet covers the stage with a central wooden parquet area – a dance floor.  Small tables with shaded lamps and chairs are moved around to denote different locations.  There is a trolley laden with drink.  A record player emitting scratchy Billie Holiday songs at various intervals.  Above all of this is suspended a huge square canopy of ruched fabric, and a glitterball.  The red dominates, a rich crimson, the colour of blood perhaps, the colour of passion.

A pall of smoke floats across the auditorium.  This is the smoke-filled world of the club back when people were allowed to suck on cigarettes indoors.  But the smoke keeps coming.  It adds a hazy look to every scene, a sort of mists-of-time atmosphere, but I question its omnipresence.  It became something of a distraction in the end and anything that induces an audience to cough more than they might usually, cannot be a good thing.  I would pull the plug on the smoke machine early on, and only give it a blast in the more dreamlike sequences.

Whittington’s dialogue is sharp and snappy.  The characters fire off quips like machine-gun fire and here I have a bit of an issue with the director’s pacing of scenes.  When Ellis is at her most neurotic, there is very little difference to the moments when she’s engaging in banter with her workmates.  Greater contrast between these scenes would make for a more effective whole.  Faye Castelow plays Ellis as a tightly wound spring, a chattering, fragile thing but the speed of delivery of group dialogue makes everyone seem highly strung.  It gets a bit wearing after a while.

Ellis is not a sympathetic creature.  We know all along she’s for the drop – the play is instantly laden with an air of doom.  But I didn’t feel any tugging at my heartstrings or any particular appeal to my sense of moral outrage at this poor woman’s fate.  I found myself thinking of Rihanna and Chris Brown and the lack of understanding about why someone stays in an abusive and violent relationship.

The cast is excellent.  They reproduce the London accents of the day, helping to evoke the sense of period.  The costumes are all in keeping and the music, distorted blasts of Billie Holiday (another doomed woman who went through the mill of love) unify the action and add emotive punch.  I enjoyed Maya Wasowicz as confident and chirpy Vickie Martin, and Katie West as dowdy charwoman Doris living on the edge of all this ‘glamour’.  Hilary Tones’s Sylvia Shaw, nightclub manageress, is worldly-wise and sanguine.  There is a hint of grubbiness beneath the elegance.  Jack Gale’s efficient inspector is the only male voice, a counterpoint to the constant barrage of badinage.

I found the sum of the parts rather wearing.  There are some excellent moments – scenes from the trial are a swirling eddy of questions and statements, and the hanging is simply but superbly evoked by the slamming of the record-player lid, followed by a blackout.  After that, the other characters drift on and off in an unfocussed moment, as fuzzy as the smoke that’s still pouring in.

This was the first night, and though the cast was operating like clockwork, I think director James Dacre needs to slow and stretch some of the scenes, as well as killing the smoke, in order to allow the piece to breathe.

thrill of love poster

About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic http://williamstaffordnovelist.wordpress.com/ http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B008AD0YGO and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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