Review: Red Ellen. Nottingham Playhouse.

Red Ellen

Written by Caroline Bird

Directed by Wils Wilson

Nottingham Playhouse – Touring

Wednesday 13th April – Saturday 30th April 2022

So often have women’s stories been airbrushed out of history, you may never have heard of the extraordinary Ellen Wilkinson and her remarkable life. Accordingly, this brand-new play by Caroline Bird aims to right those wrongs.

Wilkinson is a fearless Labour M.P. who fights unceasingly for a better world; her eponymous soubriquet coming from both her red hair and her socialist politics. The play begins in 1933 when Fascism is knocking at the door of the world and Germany is a Police State. Ellen descries the fact that ‘people are dying’ and she will fight with every fibre of her being to prevent that, even at vast personal cost.

Ergo, she meets notables Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway; battles to save Jewish refugees in Nazi Germany; campaigns for Britain to aid the fight against Franco’s Fascists in Spain; and leads 200 workers in the Jarrow Crusade, marching from Newcastle through Nottingham and the Midlands all the way to London, delivering a petition which aimed to end unemployment and poverty.

In addition, she serves as a member of Churchill’s cabinet, and has affairs with communist spies and government ministers alike. Nevertheless, she remains the perennial outsider, despite her best efforts to puncture ‘The Establishment.’

Bettrys Jones plays the titular Ellen, imbuing her with intelligence, honesty, and bloody-mindedness. Ellen is described as ‘a mighty atom’ and this could just as easily be applied to Jones herself. She is almost permanently in view and successfully portrays the multi-faceted Wilkinson, both in the intimate scenes of domestic drama and those in the wider political arena. Jones has the requisite physical attributes and dramatic skill to make the role her own. She is indeed ‘a fiery particle’ delivering dialogue with vigour and conviction.

It is during Ellen’s first term in office that the decision is taken to close the town’s shipyard, leaving thousands facing a future with no jobs and little opportunity. The 200 local volunteers cover 291 miles in 26 days, and I really enjoy learning more about the background to the crusade. Unemployed men are threatened with having their dole stopped, have poorly shod boots, but are asked to smarten up to look ‘employable,’ and urged to wear their capes like bandoliers. The historical detail is fascinating.

Like the Jarrow March, Red Ellen is a long undertaking, running at almost three hours. Personally, I do think that it could be trimmed. This seems churlish to admit as the script by Caroline Bird is first-rate; entertaining, educational, and unexpectedly humorous, given the subject matter. It adroitly captures dry, sardonic Mancunian humour and there are genuine laugh-out-loud moments, such as Virginia Woolf being described as ‘tight as a nun’s chuff’ or a drunken Hemingway (Kevin Lennon) proclaiming in disgust, ‘This wine tastes like kidney failure.’ 

Conversely, there are Brechtian elements that challenge us to see the parallels with the world today, and perhaps provoke us into action. As Ellen adjures, ‘Showing up is not enough,’ signalling theatre as a vehicle for social change. This is an astute play which brings to the fore issues that we are still wrestling with today: the spread of misinformation; propaganda versus fact; and freedom of speech. It raises pertinent questions, such as what really goes on in the corridors of power and how are the interests of the marginalised best served?

Strong support is given by an ensemble cast which includes Helen Katamba, Jim Kitson, Laura Evelyn, Sandy Batchelor, and Mercedes Assad. I enjoy seeing them play divers roles, in addition to multi-tasking as scene shifters, dressers and prop handlers. Scene changes are tightly choreographed, and Ellen’s costume changes take place on stage. I appreciate the metafictional elements of this, reminding us that this is a dramatised account of Ellen’s life, but a persuasive one at that.

The scenes between Jones and Katamba, as Ellen’s sister Annie, convincingly reflect notions of familial responsibility and sibling rivalry. There is a touching poignancy and righteous anger that is also manifest in Ellen’s scenes with Herbert, a fellow politician. As their affair ends, we can see the double standards that exist in the way women are judged in both their careers and their sexual relations.

As I leave the theatre I reflect upon the life of this extraordinary woman, one tragically cut short through ill health. I sincerely hope theatregoers will head to the Playhouse to learn more about the woman and her singular life. As Ellen proclaims, ‘Lose yourself in action, lest you lose yourself in despair.’

Viva Ellen Wilkinson!

Viva la revolution!

Age suitability – 14+

Running time – 165 minutes approx. (inc. interval)

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