Ruth Ellis and Stephen Ward Live Again in the World of Opera

08/07/2015

  Charlotte Bray, Thomas Hyde, Chamber Opera Double Bill:  Soloists, Nova Music Ensemble /George Vass (conductor), Richard Williams (director), Cheltenham Music Festival, Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham. 6.7.2015. (RJ)

Charlotte Bray: Entanglement (premiere)
(Libretto: Amy Rosenthal)
Ruth Ellis: Kirsty Hopkins (soprano)
Desmond Cusson: Howard Quilla Croft (baritone)
David Blakely: Greg Tassell (tenor)

 

Thomas Hyde: That Man Stephen Ward
(Libretto: David Norris),
Stephen Ward: Damian Thantrey
Actors: Morgan Ashley, Mike O’Kennedy

 

Nova Music Opera’s double bill focused on two figures from the 1950s and 1960s respectively, both of whom achieved notoriety and were destined for early deaths

Charlotte Bray’s Entanglement deals with nightclub manageress Ruth Ellis and her relationships with two men – a racing driver (David), who abuses her, and a businessman in the tobacco trade (Desmond), who is head over heels in love with her, though the affection is not reciprocated. The action moves between Ruth’s bedsit, Desmond’s flat, the Magdala public house, Holloway Prison on the Old Bailey where she is condemned to death.

Amy Rosenthal’s libretto tells the story simply and unemotionally starting in the witness box where Desmond swears to tell the truth and nothing but the truth and starts his witness staement. Howard Quilla Croft portrays him as a chap whose emotional compass is limited – which is perhaps why he doesn’t appeal to Ruth. She prefers David, the carefree man of action, played by Greg Rassell, who seems to have little time for her.  Ruth toys with the idea of suicide, but stops short when she hears her child calling. When she sees David again – leaving a pub – she calls out to him, he ignores her and, observed by Desmond, she shoots him dead.  Desmond – ever the dutiful citizen – gives evidence in court which will condemn her to the gallows. But Ruth is indifferent to her fate believing she will be reunited with her lover.

With her peroxided hair (or wig?) Kirsty Hopkins bears a striking resemblance to the murderess, but she doesn’t exactly engage our sympathy. Nor do any of the other characters. Charlotte Bray’s score is unobtrusive yet menacing creating a doom-laden atmosphere which is reinforced by the simple but garish set with furniture and fitments all painted red. This is a well crafted work, which had a Brechtian detachment about it.

Not all readers will be familiar with the Profumo Affair –  a scandal that rocked Britain in  1963 and is credited with bringing down the government of the day. (I am always at pains to point out that I was living abroad at the time and was not implicated in any way!) The most notable casualty of the affair was Society osteopath Dr Stephen Ward who committed suicide after being accused of living off immoral earnings.

Ward’s tragic death has spawned countless articles and books – even a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. But I’m not sure that any come as close to the heart of the matter as That Man Stephen Ward. composed by Thomas Hyde to a libretto by David Norris. The opera takes the form of a soliloquy – speech, recitatives, arias and cabaret songs all enacted by Damian Thantrey as Ward – with two walk-on actors representing the osteopath’s clients and the girls he befriends, notably Christine Keeler. The action is punctuated by news bulletins.

The magnificent Damian Thantry is eminently believable in the role Ward and in all the other parts as well – as the policeman who raids his house during a party and as Keeler herself with the actress mouthing the words like a ventriloquist’s dummy. The osteopath comes over as a person who revels in the social whirl, an inveterate name dropper, and one who is anxious to please – a trait which will prove his undoing. Unfortunately his kindness is not reciprocated, and after he is branded a pimp his influential friends shun him completely. “I am expecting the telephone to ring,” he says optimistically, but it doesn’t, nobody comes to his rescue, and he becomes increasingly desperate. In court he files a ‘not guilty’ plea. (“All I did was favours for my friends.”)  As his confidence evaporates he recalls his unhappy school days when he was made a scape goat; and as he administers an overdose his only concern is  “I hope I haven’t let people down too much.”

This is a well observed, moving portrait of Stephen Ward by librettist David Norris and Thomas Hyde’s music captures impeccably the heady spirit of the time and the anguish of a man whose naivety leads to his downfall.  Damien Thantry’s performance as Ward is electrifying; if I see acting of such depth and power again this year. I shall be both surprised and delighted.

Roger Jones

Both operas will be performed again at the Presteigne Festival on Thursday 27th August.

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