EVEN those of us who don’t remember the infamous trial and execution of the last woman hanged in Britain, can surely immediately conjure up an image of Ruth Ellis. The Thrill of Love, which opened at Ilkley Playhouse last week, charts the story of the case and the trial – the outcome of which we know.

What may be less familiar is the story which precedes the murder and the circumstances of Ruth Ellis’ life and work. This piece of theatre is hard hitting and powerful as well as being deeply affecting.

Gordon Williamson’s set is striking, expansive and tall to encompass a bar, a street, a court room, a bedroom and a prison cell. None of it is comfortable. Against this stark back drop we watch the story unfold.

It is quite a relief that the murderous act comes first, getting it out of the way so that instead of anticipating it, the audience can instead understand what precedes it.

The slight figure of Nikki Ford, playing Ruth Ellis, is at once vulnerable and delicate. Seen entering a gentlemen’s club, it is clear that she is one of the regular hostesses, with a loyal customer following. The work has taken its toll: she drinks too much, she has scant regard for her own well-being and worst of all, she has become dependent on the quasi affections of the men she entertains. In contrast, Wander Bruijel’s imposing frame, as the detective Jack Gale, serves to highlight her ‘innocence’. His is an omnipresent figure, always on stage watching the action unfold and ultimately casting his own opinion quite forcefully.

The other characters which surround her compound Ellis’ frailty. Sylvia manages the bar and the girls – somewhere between ‘Madam’ and mother. This is a challenging role but Joanne Martin manages the shift between hard-piece and compassionate friend with ease – her distress at the outcome and her frustration with the weakness of the girls is palpable. Becky Hill too, playing Doris brings a voice of reason to situations – seeing through Ruth’s blind love for her abuser, and eventual victim and desperately trying to protect her. The relationship between these two and the powerful scene between them is perhaps the most revealing of the play for it is here where we see how ensnared Ruth is in a truly toxic affair, repeatedly returning to the man that causes her harm.

Vickie, played by Leanne Cross, is the archetypal good time girl, up for anything and living life in the fast lane – something which is to be her undoing. This character firmly locates the period of the play and fore-shadows that other notorious scandal of the time, involving Stephen Ward – a doctor mentioned by her. Whilst the fun-loving Vickie comes to an untimely death, it rather confuses the production to see her later appear as the High Court Judge in the trial.

Directed by Steve Mason, there is a strong cast playing challenging, multi-layered parts in this drama which plays with your emotions and raises provocative conversations.

Written by Amanda Whittington this is a fascinating and ultimately tragic piece. It runs at the playhouse until the 26th January.

by Becky Carter