Isabelle Culkin talks to the cast and crew of Front Room Productions’ ‘The Thrill of Love’.
On Easter Sunday 1955, Ruth Ellis shot her lover David Blakely dead, and immediately handed herself over to the police. Throughout the trial, she accepted full responsibility for the murder. The case got immense press coverage, with many noting her steely composure throughout. Ellis ultimately became immortalised through the fact and fiction the press spun. Her story captured the public’s imagination, and a fascination soon grew not only towards the details of the murder but about the woman herself.
Sixty years on, Ellis’ story still holds similar power. Amanda Whittington’s The Thrill of Love aims to colour Ellis’ story more deeply with the fact rather than the fiction. The desire for justice and truth in Ellis’ case in this production is one of the reasons Front Room Productions has decided to stage it as its first production. Henry Winlow, its co-producer, explains how much fiction got mixed up in the public reception of Ellis’ case. “Much of what we see of Ruth Ellis is the façade, what the media wanted us to see: the angry lover that killed her husband, and not any kind of sympathy.” Winlow credits the neutrality of the play as one of its successes. “People have very different responses to how innocent she is.”
Georgie Franklin, playing Doris, explains there is no escaping the media attention. “We were looking at how the playwright wrote it in response to the media attention, both contemporary and now.” Olivia Race, its director, explains how “the media attention portrayed her as very heartless”. The narrowness of the media attention is both a blessing and a curse for an actor to play Ellis. Eliza Cummings-Cove, playing Ruth Ellis, explains that “even though there is a lot written about her, there isn’t a lot written about her mannerisms and her personality.”
The Thrill of Love turns this one-dimensionality entirely on its head. Eliza Cummings-Cove, playing Ruth Ellis, explains she’s a lot more vulnerable in the play. “When I first read the play, I was quite worried because I thought this role could turn into me sitting onstage and crying for two hours.” However, as rehearsals progressed and the scenes came to life, it was clear that the play was too complex to be considered a pity fest. Race particularly likes the juxtaposition of different scenes from Ellis’ life, with some scenes being quite comical. “Having those scenes just lifts it. You laugh at it, and it makes the darker scenes even harder to watch.”
The Thrill of Love marks Race’s directorial debut. Previously a very well-seasoned actor in Durham, Race draws on her experience as an actor when she directs, and defines her style as “collaborative”. Winlow commends this approach. “You go and develop your own character and then bring it to Liv and Phea. It makes it quite vibrant and exciting, because it’s not just one person’s monotonic vision of what they want to achieve.”
The cast have responded well to this direction. Franklin explains “it comes from such a genuine place with Liv, because it comes from both an actor and directorial perspective. She’s a confident and reassuring pair of hands. You can just trust her judgement. The way she directs is very instinctive.”
Letting her cast have more power over their characters, their motivations and their back stories has also allowed each of them to have an individual life of their own. Race has been keen to make sure that the other characters don’t simply facilitate Ellis’ story. “They do all very much have their own stories. They are all based on amalgamations of real people. Ruth is the centre of this play, but that doesn’t mean that the other characters don’t have their own stories.” Shona Graham, playing Vickie, points to the biographical nature of the play as being a particular highlight for developing these stories. “It’s an interesting point that each of the characters are based on real people; it means they all have very rich back stories.”
It’s these back stories which are so fundamental to The Thrill of Love as a whole, and Whittington’s play is a great source to separate the fact from the fiction. Front Room Productions’ production will try to determine more about the woman behind the façade and the infamy. Through the production Ellis is exposed as a normal but troubled woman, and not just a callous murderess.
‘The Thrill of Love’ is performing at Hatfield Chapel from Thu 5 Nov till Sat 7 Nov, 20:00. Book tickets here.
Photographs: Isabelle Culkin