Died Blondes, by Joan Ellis, at the Bread and Roses as part of Clapham Fringe

A solo show with a twist Died Blondes written and performed by Joan Ellis really caught my attention when we were perusing the brochure for Clapham Fringe- having recently watched the BBC documentary on Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, I had a gut feeling that her life deserved to be dramatized more than it had been until now. And as for Ellis’s other muse for the show, Marilyn Monroe, she never fails to sell (but this show fully buys into all the conspiracy theories, making it juicy and refreshing).
The first monologue delivered was from Ruth Ellis, a Welsh model and nightclub hostess that lived and worked in nightclubs around London led a very modern life for a woman in the 1950s, sleeping with many wealthy men she encountered at the clubs, including the man she murdered, David Blakely. The monologue takes the form of an imagined last letter written form Ruth to David the night before she hung, it takes you on an emotional journey where you never quite settle on whether she was a victim of physical and mental abuse driven to an event she never intended, or whether she was very conscious of her actions and deliberately and knowingly went after her own justice, regardless of the effect on her husband and young son. At the end the fact is dropped that the doctor told Ruth that she was dying of a terminal illness anyway, the coy slightly cockney accent put on by Ellis hold confidence and conviction in her actions, embodying anger and at times confusion at Blakely’s actions, it’s a brilliantly written piece that takes you on a journey and leaves you with more questions- which (for better or worse) we will never have the answers to, so like all good theatre you are left to make your mind up on whether she should have been found guilty of murder (ie, she intended to kill Blakely when she was driven to Hampstead), or whether she was a victim of her time and of untreated and unrecognised conditions.
The next monologue was delivered from behind a backlit screen reminiscent of one you might find in a boudoir. If you hadn’t have already seen Ellis you might have been mistaken that they had actually raised the dead the voice that filled the room was so uncanny it almost gave me chills. This monologue is a fictionalised account of the last phone call Monroe ever made to her second (of three) husbands baseball player Joe DiMaggio. Before diving into the character we are posed the question- are these the events that occurred, or are they the fictionalisation of an unwell mind. It’s a question you’ve almost forgotten by the end when we see Monroe reacting to the presence of Bobby Kennedy (brother of JFK) who we are led to believe killed her. It is afterwards explained that the official ruling on her death was an overdose on her pills you are left with an impression that Ellis favours one version of events over the other, unlike with the first monologue. The speech itself is informative and engaging, though I was unsure about the continuing use of the screen as it felt a little like I was listening to an amazing radio play rather than watching a piece of theatre.
Overall I loved watching this show- it really satisfied my want for historical females to be portrayed as strong, even in their weakest moments, and I’d love to see if and how it develops (I spent the entire journey home wondering what an actual conversation between the two might have looked like) so watch this space, and watch Joan Ellis. She’s really quite the writer. – Kimberley Turford

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