Amanda Whittington's playwriting career has been built on sharply written plays about groups of women, starting with Be My Baby. So it's no surprise that her new drama about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, is tightly focused on her relationships with other women in the sleazy world of early 1950s drinking clubs.
Ellis's story was memorably told in the film Dance With A Stranger, and the problem for anyone dramatising it for the stage is to find a new angle on a fairly banal life. Ellis shot dead her lover David Blakely in a Hampstead street in 1955, pleaded not guilty at her trial but offered no real defence. Her execution was, of course, a judicial crime that became a symbol of the hypocrisy and brutality of the respectable 1950s. It's a tale that requires the scabrous talent of John Osborne, or even Joe Orton, to do it justice.
This production at the St James theatre, first performed at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, runs for 90 minutes with no interval. As a picture of Ellis and the other women in her life, it hits the mark very well, though I'm not sure it gets to the essence of her story. The only male character is a rather ponderous detective, who links the scenes with narrative to the audience. Whittington deliberately omits both Blakely and Ellis's other fancy man Denis Cusson, concentrating on the feminine dynamics. The dialogue crackles between Ruth, her ambitious friend Vickie, the world-weary club manageress Sylvia and the kind-hearted cleaner Doris, creating an atmospheric picture of early 1950s Soho. Jonathan Fensom's design is all red plush and gilt chairs, suggesting a two-star nightspot where the alcohol flows and the tawdriness seeps all round the room. The problem is that the backstage scenes between the women aren't quite enough. The real story behind the murder lies in Ellis's relationships with men, not women, and they happen off stage.
Faye Castelow, a diminutive peroxide blonde figure, is stunningly good as Ruth. The direction by James Dacre is excellent, though I felt some of the scenes could have been taken at a slower pace. Robert Gwilym makes an excellent 1950s detective inspector, but I always suspect that when a narrator appears to explain what's going on, it's a warning signal that the dramatic action on stage isn't quie firing on all cylinders. There are echoes of J B Priestley's An Inspector Calls here, but in this play the policeman is more of a dramatic device than a real character.
I enjoyed this play a lot, but left the theatre feeling that it was slightly predictable. At no point did I feel I was genuinely surprised by what happened next or by what the characters were saying or doing, or that I was being taken into an imaginary world that opened up a new dimension.