Riverside Studios, 20 January – 1 February 2009
Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide
Back in the 1950s, the last days of British capital punishment, “Follow me,” was the only thing the executioner would say to the condemned before hanging them. It’s a morbidly appropriate title for a play about Ruth Ellis, the last woman ever to hang in Britain, and her executioner, Albert Pierrepoint.
Ellis shot her lover David Blakely five times at point-blank range. She was hung in 1955, at Holloway Gaol, by Pierrepoint. She was 28 years old.
The play runs for a limited time at Riverside Studios as part of their Best of the Fest programme. It won a Herald Angel, amongst other things, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007 – just one of prolific director Guy Masterson’s many Fringe awards.
Masterson favours a strong emphasis on performance, stripping down staging and technical elements to a bare minimum and focusing solely on the acting. It’s an approach that’s earned him many accolades, and the quality of performance he draws from his casts is undeniable, but concentrating on one element of production to the exclusion of all else inevitably has its downsides.
Beth Fitzgerald makes a mercurial Ruth Ellis, attempting to keep her upper lip as stiff as her hairstyle but swinging like an erratic pendulum between cold composure and high-pitched, fretful babbling.
Her motives for killing Blakely are not the issue of the day – it was simply a “crime of passion”. The focus is on her journey from noble acceptance, through uncertainty and shrieking terror, to quiet resignation, in the run-up to her execution.
Pierrepoint’s motives, on the other hand, are thoroughly interrogated by both characters – who, though they share the stage, don’t meet until the terminal scene, instead delivering alternating monologues to a series of invisible interlocutors.
Pierrepoint’s profession is dead in this country, and to many people the concept of it now seems abhorrent. Yet Ross Gurney-Randall successfully makes him human and, what’s more, likeable.
True, he spends the majority of the play explaining, in detail, the theory and practice of execution by hanging; but his manner is that of a friendly senior colleague showing us the ropes of an unpleasant but necessary job. He exhibits professional disdain for “the Yanks” with their uniform drop heights and electric chair; his mission is to make the act as quick and painless as he can.
Pierrepoint’s favourite mantra is, “The day you get used to this job is the day you should stop.” But Ellis, wondering about her executioner from her cell, speculates that “To do it more than once you must have to enjoy it.” Parallels are also drawn between Pierrepoint and the concentration camp guards he hanged in Nuremberg: he, too, is “just doing his job”.
Fitzgerald’s and Gurney-Randall’s performances are convincing, engaging, multilayered studies of two interesting historical characters – but thanks to Guy Masterson’s minimalist directorial style, that’s about all the play has to offer.
The tight focus on performance, character and motivation comes at the cost of the bigger picture. It’s difficult to pick much out of the production that’s relevant to modern life, over fifty years on.
In the programme, Fitzgerald makes interesting points about how nowadays, Blakely’s violence would be considered provocation, and Ellis would be classed as a battered woman and granted leniency on grounds of diminished responsibility. The production itself makes no reference to any of this, and so offers little more than a snapshot of a time long gone.
Ultimately, Masterson does what he does well, but his approach simply isn’t holistic enough. More is required for exceptional theatre than two talented actors skilfully speaking lines; the play needs to mean something to us, the audience of 2009.
Written by Ross Gurney-Randall and Dave Mounfield
Crew includes Guy Masterson (director)
Cast includes Beth Fitzgerald (Ruth Ellis) and Ross Gurney-Randall (Albert Pierrepoint)