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The Bitch from Brixton

Kate Gallon and Kate-Lynn Hocking
Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
(2010)

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It is entirely likely that if Ruth Ellis hadn't been the last woman to be hanged for murder in Britain she would not have such enduring notoriety. But sensationalised media coverage, the growing distaste for corporal punishment and a subsequent revisiting of the law on provocation have all played their part in securing her a place in the murderers' hall of fame.

In 2003 the campaigning of Ruth's brother and sister culminated in a hearing of the Court of Appeal referred to it by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Looking at the possibility that there had been a miscarriage of justice and that the conviction of murder should be reduced to manslaughter, it brought together and into the public domain a collection of evidence and information that was unknown or withheld at the time of the original trial.

What this play does is put together a cross section of old and new information to revisit the Ruth Ellis story. The result is that we get the story of a murder and conviction that happened nearly sixty years ago seen from a very twenty-first century perspective, and the different viewpoint reveals intimate facts about Ellis' history that may have contributed to her defence by today's standards.

There is no doubt that authors Kate Gallon and Kate-Lynn Hocking have researched their subject assiduously and have "doubts about this historic case" hinting at espionage and Ellis being set up, but the sense of conspiracy and injustice they seek to stir up is misplaced. The jury had no choice but to find her guilty of murder within the context of the law as it then stood. Ellis said herself, "It's obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him..." providing both admission and intent, both tenets of the law that required to be proved. What The Bitch from Brixton overlooks is that with contemporary eyes a plethora of past laws and judgements look as inexcusable as these do - the illegality of homosexuality and the Guildford Four come to mind.

Ruth Ellis was executed at age 28 but her short life was packed with tragedy, abuse, vice, violence and sex. On paper it sounds like it should make for wall-to-wall drama but apart from the recounting of an abusive event in her childhood which was uncomfortable to watch, on stage the sleaziness of the nightclubs and semi-villainous underworld that she frequented fails to come across. She is occasionally a victim of her circumstances but just as often she comes across as "a fool for love", continuing to tolerate, bankroll and forgive a string of unfaithful husbands and lovers.

Ruth Ellis is played by recently graduated Kirsty Neilson. Her youthfulness works well at the beginning of the play which has a chronological narrative and as a reminder of just how young Ellis was, but the character fails to develop sufficiently. She realises early on that the "chances of a sensible love are slim" and then that 'sensible love' is actually just a cover but the cynicism and maturity that comes with that understanding isn't there. I have a hunch that this is partly lack of experience and partly because the script talks a lot about love, sex, bruises and beatings but there is no evidence and we don't feel the menace or the passion. Holding it back works to a certain extent in order to provide extra force to the act of violence that we do see as the act one closer but it's a long time coming with no build-up.

Director Mark Leipacher has the cast of four using the opened-out space and crime scene inspired set effectively so there is plenty of movement. The writing is occasionally quite stylised which is reflected in the staging and the design which adheres to some period details and not others. The only choice I would really question is to mime drinking in a story that involved so much alcohol.

The Bitch from Brixton is a piece of new writing that has yet to benefit from the development work that it deserves, and I predict a healthy lifespan ahead for it. Ruth Ellis' slutty reputation, event-filled life and hanging will ensure that she remains a topic of interest. This show is now sold out. I rest my case.

"The Bitch from Brixton" by Kate Gallon and Kate-Lynn Hocking is part of Write Now, the new writing season at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre. The show, runs until Saturday 6th March. Suitable for over 16s only.

PS The Court of Appeal hearing was dismissed as being "without merit".

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti