"What do most people generally know about executioners? They wear black masks and carry big axes. That’s it,” muses playwright Maggie Clune.

“I like thinking about people who are in very unusual and unique situations. I find myself, as a former actor and as a nosy person, wondering what it must feel like to be an executioner.”

In exploring what could motivate someone to become a state-licensed killer, Clune stumbled across the bizarre, and ultimately tragic, story of John Ellis – a real life hangman who, when quitting the profession, ended up playing one on stage.

The man in charge of executing the likes of murderer Dr Crippen and revolutionary Sir Roger Casement, Ellis found infamy as the hangman who oversaw the putting to death of Edith Thompson, who had been condemned following the murder of her husband at the hands of her lover. The prosecution had argued that she manipulated this lover to do her will.

“Hers was a real cause célèbre,” explains Clune, “and has been debated for many years now. Was she guilty? Should she have hung when she wasn’t actually the murderer?”

Thompson’s execution, despite Ellis’s renowned capability for “getting the job done”, did not go to plan. Unconscious through sedatives, her death on the scaffold resulted in a traumatic experience for the hangman. In 1924, less than a year after the event, Ellis attempted to commit suicide and failed.

In an odd twist, Ellis reappeared in the public eye three years later when he helped payroll a play based on former hangman William Marwood – inventor of the “long drop” – taking the executioner role for himself. It’s here, backstage at The Grand in Gravesend, that Clune sets her story.

“It pulled together morbid curiosity and my love of the backstage world of the theatre,” she explains.

“Ellis had night terrors and dreams – the kind of post-traumatic stress we identify today in returning soldiers, I’d imagine. I represented that by Edith visiting him in the play. Not so much a ghost, but as his own tortured conscious coming back to plague him,” she explains.

“She wants to know what happened in the end because she wasn’t ‘present’ at her own death. Ellis doesn’t want to tell her, because by telling that story he has to face up to his own part in that.”

That Clune is an associate member of local theatre company Two Bins should come as no surprise. Their appetite for not pulling punches when it comes to daring and provoking content – seen earlier this year as part of the Fringe in their productions of Cuckoo and Ten Men – The Lives Of John Bindon – has allowed Clune’s play to ask questions about responsibility and the rigours of, essentially, carrying out the nation’s dirty work.

“Although my play is a period piece, I thought the subject matter has resonances with the way we look at things in the world today,” she explains.

“There is an e-petition going around, similar to the one that led to the debate about coming out of the EU, that’s calling for the reintroduction of capital punishment. I note that the Government is introducing life sentences for crimes other than murder, so who knows whether they’ll revisit worse things on murders.

“I never set out for it to be a piece that was in favour of hanging or from an abolitionist point of view – it was more looking at someone who really does stand outside society. Someone we nominate to do something for us. How do people regard the hangman and how does he regard himself ?”

Ellis eventually succeeded in killing himself in 1932. The intermediate years had been spent, incredibly, touring around fairgrounds, where he would demonstrate his skill as a hangman, and writing an autobiography. Clune believes it’s as if the former executioner couldn’t let go of his former profession.

“I do feel something for John Ellis – he was a man who was very keen to make a difference. If it’s possible to have professional pride in what one did, John Ellis certainly aspired to that,” Clune says.

“In my opinion, he was a little man who wanted to be someone, somehow. This opportunity appeared for him, he took it and ran with it for years. He was seen as a safe pair of hands and was meticulous in his attention to detail. That came at a cost over the years.

“I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand how someone can decide to do that kind of job. He was an instrument of the establishment who did want to do the best he could do and be known for it, but given the nature of his death, the man must have been going through some turmoil.”

* Thursday, November 10 to Saturday, November 19, 7.45pm (4pm matinee on Sunday, no show on Monday), £8.

Visit www.ticketsource.co.uk/event/17851 or call 01273 880102 to book.