Ruth Ellis opera sheds new light on notorious Hampstead murder

Entanglement the Ruth Ellis opera

Entanglement the Ruth Ellis opera - Credit: Archant

First there was a film, now a chamber opera tells the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England.

Hampstead’s The Magdala Tavern may have temporarily closed its doors, but on Easter Monday 1955 it was the scene of a dramatic murder.

Racing driver David Blakely was shot five times outside the pub in South Hill Park by his former lover.

The nightclub hostess turned herself in immediately, was taken to Hampstead Police Station, and executed at Holloway Prison three months later.

The cause celebre was turned into a film Dance With A Stranger and in 2003 there was an unsuccessful attempt to get Ellis’ conviction overturned based on psychological evidence that she had recently suffered a miscarriage after being battered by Blakely.

Now conductor George Vass, who lives a stone’s throw from The Magdala, has commissioned an opera about the case through his company, Nova Music.

Entanglement librettist Amy Rosenthal, lives on Tanza Road, where Blakely was visiting friends before heading to the pub that fateful evening.

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“When it was open, The Magdala is practically where I lived, I used the upstairs room for rehearsals, and had meetings and meals in the pub where the food was great,” says Vass.

“It was the 60th anniversary of the case last year which prompted me to commission a new piece. Amy has done a fantastic job and it is funny to hear Tanza Road being mentioned in an opera.

“We have a young composer Charlotte Bray with great promise and the two got on fantastically well.”

Dealing with the shooting and its aftermath, the opera features six musicians and three singers playing Ellis, Blakely and businessman Desmond Cussen another of Ruth’s lovers, who drove her to Tanza Road and is believed to have given her the gun.

“It’s not a big unwieldy work there’s a scene in the Courtroom with Cussen and the rest is told in flashback, it works extremely well.”

“To be honest having gone through the evidence and researched, we all saw Ruth in a different light.

In a Thames documentary from the 70s Desmond Cussen was asked; ‘did you give her the gun?’ and he shows no remorse as he says ‘I couldn’t possibly say’.

“She was no angel but she has lost her relationship. David was a bit of a wideboy but she was mad about him and her solicitor was not very good at representing her.”

Vass is artistic director of the Presteigne Festival in Wales where the piece played last year.

He now conducts it at LSO St Luke’s in Old Street next month in a double bill with one-man show That Man Stephen Ward, about another Cause Celebre; the Profumo Affair.

“They are both London pieces from roughly the same period so it seemed fitting to do a London performance,” adds Vass a former director of the Hampstead and Highgate music festival.

He describes Bray’s music as “quite contemporary” but adds that it echoes Ellis’ febrile state:

“People who have seen it say it makes you feel uneasy the whole way through. Charlotte has managed to build a massive climax into it which is remarkable in such a short time.”

Entanglement and That Man Stephen Ward play the Jerwood Hall LSO St Luke’s on June 17 at 7.30pm with Kirsty Hopkins as Ruth, Greg Tassell as David and Howard Quilla Croft as Desmond with George Vass conducting.

Barbican Box Office: 020 7638 8891.