Sinners Club is a gig. It’s not a play, it’s a gig. But then, it’s also more than “just” a gig. It’s an immersive experience, a theatrical spectacle which transports the audience to another place, another time, another society.
Sinners Club places the audience in a recording studio where The Bad Mothers are rehearsing and recording some songs for their latest live album. This concept album is inspired by the life of Rhyl-born Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, on July 13th, 1955 (the last man was in 1964). Ellis was just 28 years old, and was convicted of shooting dead her lover, the racing driver David Blakely, on Easter Sunday that year. Ellis gave herself up to police, took full responsibility for the murder, and conducted herself with grace and courtesy during the trial.
Ellis’s story is ripe for dramatic interpretation. It’s been done on TV (1980), film (1985) and stage (2007), but Lucy Rivers’s production is the first time it’s been done in such a stylistically broad, cabaret mould. Ellis’s story involves nude modelling, prostitution, illegal abortion, domestic violence and, ultimately, homicide. How Rivers chooses to interpret all this sin and iniquity is through the power of song, as the lead singer of The Bad Mothers.
Make no mistake: Rivers is phenomenal. Joined by her live three-piece band (Tom Cottle, Dan Messore and Aiden Thorne), she transforms into the perfect nightclub chanteuse, starting as a slightly starry songstress hidden behind bug-eyed sunglasses, but quickly unraveling, loosening up, gently interacting with her audience until the very end where she is emotionally devastated by both her performance and her subject matter.
Sadly, any narrative through-line about Ruth Ellis and her crime passionnel that is woven into Sinners Club is somewhat lost and overshadowed by the live band experience. Between songs, Rivers touches upon moments in Ellis’s tempestuous life as a nightclub hostess in London, but these narrative islands are hard for the audience to anchor to before the next torch song or blue protest kicks off. Rivers owns the floor during the musical numbers, cavorting and charming with gallons of charisma and sensuality, but sadly Ruth Ellis is edged out by this overwhelmingly powerful characterisation.
The musical palette covers rock, soul, country, the works, and Rivers and the band adjust to and execute them all expertly. The atmosphere of being in an intimate recording studio is helped enormously by Mark Bailey’s pertinent set design. The Other Room is renowned for making the most of the remarkably small space at its disposal (last year’s Constellation Street – which has just won a Wales Theatre Award for design – transformed the space into a series of rooms for a promenade piece). The audience for Sinners Club is placed either side and around the “studio”, the band mixing in with them, and in one corner is a sound booth where Rivers can record her vocals in isolation. This adjunct also serves as a place of respite for the singer, while communicating with her less than sympathetic engineer.
It’ll be interesting to see how Bailey and the team manage to recreate the intimacy of a 40-strong audience at The Other Room in the much larger Emlyn Williams Theatre at Theatr Clwyd when Sinners Club opens there on March 2nd for a fortnight’s run. The closeness, the proximity, the sweaty glow of The Other Room’s design and layout is a major factor in conjuring the experience of Sinners Club. There may be a more expansive design for the set, with the audience sat at nightclub tables (rather like Whatever Happened to La La Shockette at Pontio last year). This will evoke a certain atmosphere, for sure, but I do wonder if it will recreate the same experience. If not, how this more cabaret-styled set-up will alter the audience’s ingestion of the Ruth Ellis narrative will be fascinating.
Sinners Club is an utterly immersive and transformative experience. It’s bewitching and entrancing, allowing you to watch a live gig just feet away from you. If they shaved 20 minutes off it and took it to the Edinburgh Fringe, it’d be a runaway hit. It’s just a shame that the topic which inspired it all – the life and death of a young Welsh woman who fell into a life of crime and sin, and paid the ultimate price – isn’t quite strong enough to make its mark.