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A Lady of Letters plus Follow Me: an extraordinary and unanticipated congruence.

16 March 2014

A Lady of Letters

by Alan Bennett

and

Follow Me

by Ross Gurney-Randall and David Mounfield

Hampton Hill Playhouse Studio

OHADS Double Bill

Review by Mark Aspen

 

Two women, two lives, two plays: each seemingly very different. Their two emotional journeys were packed into an intense evening, in a double bill presented by OHADS in the intimate space of the Coward studio at Hampton Hill Playhouse.  One play featured the fictional Irene Rudduck, a sheltered prim middle-aged spinster, the other the real life Ruth Ellis, a glamorous society call-girl, whose life ended on the gallows as the last woman in Britain to be sentenced to death

 

But were they so different?   As each play unfolded, it became clear that both suffered emotional isolation and loneliness, and both became prisoners, both metaphorical and physically.  Here were two stories mirrored in drama, one as a witty but gentle comedy, the other a tragedy of a proportion worthy of Aeschylus.

 

Lady of Letters, directed by john Bellamy, is one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series, a whimsical comedy of the type that OHADS do best, nostalgic, funny and touching. Irene Rudduck, the eponymous Lady, leads an almost agoraphobic existence from the confines of her lacklustre flat.  Her only way of reaching out to the world is by writing letters, increasingly letters of complaint, and increasingly bizarre complaints.  These range from dog excrement to the Archbishop’s hair.  When she writes is it from concern?   (Is it right for policemen to wear spectacles? she asks.)   Or is she just a busybody?  This fine line is crossed when she reports her neighbours for neglect of a child, who, it turns out, is terminally ill in hospital.   Eventually, her lack of control of her pen leads to her imprisonment for breaching court orders.

 

Helen Smith portrayed a more and more agitated Irene, from a hesitant character to one in full flow of indignation.   Irene’s insecurity was faithfully pictured, from her curtain-twitching anxiety to her convoluted self-justification.  Then we saw her transformation, for prison ironically frees Irene, as she finds a hidden self, eagerly learning techniques of three s-words, smoking, swearing and **x !    Can she quite bring herself to saying the last one?   … but it might come in useful when she gets out.   Irene’s glee was brightly depicted and we are taken along with her epiphany with a performance that engaged with the audience, in a way that we had not seen before.

 

There was, of course, no getting out for Ruth Ellis, as Follow Me underlines in its title; being the last words that she would have heard, the only thing that Albert Pierrepoint, the executioner would say to the condemned before they were hanged.  On Easter Sunday 1955, twenty-eight years old Ellis shot her lover David Blakely several times at point-blank range.  She was hanged at Holloway that July.  Under the present law, since Blakely had been violent over many years, her provocation would be such that a court would have granted leniency on grounds of diminished responsibility. Follow Me doesn’t debate these issues, but leaves us with a glimpse of an era which now seems long past.

 

The directors, Kelly Wood and Harry Medawar worked separately on the Ellis and Pierrepoint speeches respectively, except for the last moments of the play, a technique that worked exceptionally well, since the play is presented as an interwoven series of monologues from executioner and condemned, who only come together for the last dance of death.

Pierrepoint was played by Andy Smith in what is undoubtedly one of his best performances, controlled, engrossing and intense.   In his hands Pierrepoint spoke directly to the audience with a gravitas that was totally mesmerising.  This was no doubt true to Pierrepoint, an enigmatic but complex character who could combine being a prolific hangman with being the genial host at the Yorkshire pub where he was licensee.   He tells of his 685 “clients” (135 were reprieved) and how he helps them “meet their Maker with God’s grace”.  However, this somewhat perverse humanity is met with a literal gallows humour, when he explains how his father and uncle “showed me the ropes” and in his dialogue with an unseen assistant, to whom he explains the he should not drink the night before the execution as this was “no time for a hangover”.

 

However, the weakness of the text of this play, in spite of its winning of several accolades at its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe, is its concentration on Pierrepoint.   The clinical details of the mechanics of humane execution are reiterated ad nauseam by this bright-eyed matter-of-fact hangman.   He spells out repeatedly his disdain for the Yanks at Nuremberg whose methods result in a long drawn-out strangulation or, worse still, decapitation, compared with his own seven to fifteen seconds from cell door to death, as he helps his client accept their “final moments with dignity”.

 

Nevertheless, one cannot help finding Pierrepoint a likeable character. Perhaps even more so one is drawn towards Ruth Ellis, who, in spite of her years of living on the edge, exhibits a naivety and a misplaced trust.  The relentless inevitability of Ruth’s fate is the most harrowing part of this play, putting its style into that of the Fassbinder anti-heroine, the willing victim.  She believes, right up to the last minute, that she will get a reprieve, while we sit by helpless, knowing it is not going to happen.   From her arrest, minutes after Blakely’s killing, she admits her guilt; she remains protective of an earlier lover, Desmond Cussens, who set her up with the gun; and in prison she says of Blakely “I want to join him”.  The poignancy of Ruth’s fate is summed up in her words to a prison wardress, “You can’t live without them and you can’t kill them“, as she finishes writing in a final letter to Blakely’s parents, “I have always loved your son, and I shall die still loving him”.

 

It is remarkable that the demanding role of Ruth Ellis is the acting debut of Collette Bryant, whose sensitive and believable portrayal had the right mix of grit and tenderness.

 

The directors and actors have taken a difficult subject and depicted the distressing reality and the underlying human frailty of this true story with honesty and with balance.

 

As a slight niggle, both sets, though lit with nice understatement by William Adams, a future force to watch, suffered from an unimaginative symmetry in design that placed the actors at odd angle to the audience.

 

OHADS made a bold decision to present back-to-back two plays with such a different approach into the psyche of two women each seeking and failing to find fulfilment. In the event, the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy, of the gauche and the gaudy, the underused and the abused, illuminated an extraordinary and unanticipated congruence in their life stories.

Mark Aspen

March 2014

 

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From → Drama, Reviews

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