Saturday, August 18, 2007

Follow Me

From the Assembly Rooms' lunchtime slot, Follow Me is a two-hander about the execution of Ruth Ellis in 1955. It's basically two monologues set on the night before the big day - Ellis writes letters to friends and family and talks to her unseen cellmates, while Albert Pierrepoint, the Chief Executioner, briefs his unseen assistants and contemplates the anti-death penalty crowd outside. There isn't really a story; it's just a "compare and contrast" with the two characters, who finally meet in the closing moments as Ellis is collected for her execution.

For those Americans who may not be aware, Ruth Ellis was the last woman in Britain to be hanged. We continued executing men for another nine years, but Ellis has always been a much better known figure. In part, that's because her execution was particularly contentious. She was 28, there were certain class overtones at play, and the overwhelming majority of female murderers were reprieved by that point anyway. But Ruth had the misfortune to be convicted just after an election year, when the new government had been elected on a hardline policy. So off to the gallows it was.

Personally, I find Pierrepoint a more interesting figure than Ellis. Assuming you take the view that she was guilty - and this play does - she's a crime-of-passion murderer whose story has some lurid overtones. Pierrepoint, on the other hand, was an executioner as a sideline. The British didn't execute enough people to justify keeping an excutioner on staff as a full-time job, so he made his living running a pub. Nonetheless, he still managed to get through several hundred executions in his career (though admittedly, almost half of those were Nazi war criminals in the late forties).

Despite this, Pierrepoint was far from bloodthirsty; by all accounts he seems to have accepted the death penalty as a fact of life and to have been sincerely concerned to conduct his executions as painlessly and humanely as possible. However, he resigned in 1956 (over a disagreement about fees) and went on to become an opponent of capital punishment - not so much as a matter of principle, as because he came to feel that it was ineffective as a deterrent, and to be disturbed by the fact that reprieves were granted more by political expediency than on the merits of the case. He seems to have been fine with the actual killing bit, as long as it was acheiving something and it was being conducted in a rational way.

The contrast between the two characters works because Ellis is a murderer, but one who's relatively easy to identify with. Pierrepoint is somebody who can calmly and rationally kill hundreds of people, and while it's easier to understand his position intellectually, it's virtually impossible to identify with his ability to do the job.

If you put these two figures on stage together then the show practically writes itself, and director Guy Masterson plays it straight. It's a small-scale, minimal production that depends on the performances to carry it, and the performances are excellent. Although Pierrepoint eventually reconciled his concerns by becoming an opponent of capital punishment, this show sees him at a point where he's starting to have his doubts about the whole thing, or at least the way it's being operated. The show doesn't resolve that dilemma or even attempt to; it simply presents the two characters as fascinating in their own right.

At 75 minutes in the lunchtime slot, when there's not much competition, this is well worth going out of your way to see.