Amanda Whittington’s new play invites us into the world of Ruth Ellis – the last woman to be hanged for murder in Britain.
Delving into London’s “gentlemen's" club land of the post war years – a place overrun by a rogue’s gallery of pickled toffs and their play things, crooks, film stars, tabloid hacks and bent police– it coincides with a renewed interest in the red plush glamour of austerity-era Britain much enjoyed during the last series of The Hour.
Set to an achingly beautiful Billie Holiday soundtrack we are led through events leading up to the notorious murder outside The Magdala public house in Hampstead on Easter Sunday 1955.
The case for the prosecution was that the jilted hostess, overcome by jealousy, coldly and calmly opened fire on her boyfriend – later confessing to police, admitting her intention to murder in court and eschewing any attempt to appeal her death sentence.
But this is a story told very much from the female perspective and a case for the defence.
The victim, no-good racing driver David Blakely remains off-stage throughout, and the only male presence is the questing Detective Inspector Gale who sees a deeper truth to the tabloid-generated fantasy which turned the case into a cause celebre and led ultimately to the abolition of the death penalty in Britain.
Whittington, whose previous work includes Be My Baby, is clearly - and rightly - inviting sympathy for the blonde bombshell, whose platinum locks echoed those of Marilyn Monroe and her friend Diana Dors but which also foreshadowed the later, grislier iconography of Myra Hindley.
The playwright suggests that today Ellis might not have swung at the end of Albert Pierrepoint’s rope, traumatised as she was by years of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of the men who exploited her.
She was clearly a severely troubled woman whose obsession with her violent lover provides compelling dramatic material. However, whilst this production by the New Vic Theatre is an enjoyable affair, skilfully staged and producing a striking performance from Faye Castelow in the lead role, we learn little new about Ellis and her plight.
Attempts to bring the case back to the Court of Appeal were rejected in 2003 with the judges openly critical of efforts to portray her alongside James Hanratty as a victim of a miscarriage of justice.
At the time Ellis’s family sought to have her conviction downgraded to manslaughter on the grounds she suffered from “battered women’s syndrome”.
The jury that convicted Ellis took just 14 minutes to find her guilty. Posterity is taking a little longer to come to the opposite conclusion.
Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough to 23 March then St James Theatre, London 27 March – 4 May.