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Jennie Lee – Bingley Arts Centre

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Writer/Lyricist: Lindsay Rodden

Composer: Sonum Batra

Director: Marianne McNamara

In its 52nd year of touring (by van and narrowboat) Mikron works to a highly successful pattern: two plays a year, especially commissioned, “telling stories about uniquely British things”, performed with zest and skill by four talented young actor-musicians.Jennie Leeis slightly different: usually Mikron deals with general features of the British way of life (the second play this year is about rambling) and, while Jennie Lee was undoubtedly “uniquely British”, the fact that she was a real person poses certain challenges, most of which are met confidently.

In fact the opening of the play, while providing huge fun, makes one wonder whether the life of Jennie Lee will be trivialised. As a little girl in Fife, the daughter of a miner and a theatrical boarding house keeper, she was exposed both to left wing politics and the joys of theatre! Lauren Robinson’s bright independent little girl is an absolute joy, but is it all too jolly, with a theatre setting and a red-nosed comic bobbing up from time to time with bad jokes? In the end fears prove groundless, though the crude characterisation of Ellen Wilkinson jars, and the second half is inspiring and more moving by the minute.

Her first by-election came at the age of 24 (too young to vote!) in 1929, as the victorious ILP candidate in North Lanarkshire and Robinson gives us the flavour of Lee’s unstoppable rhetoric in simply staged scenes with a crowd of two to represent the masses she really addressed. She carries this dynamic fervour into the House of Commons and seems to have made a practice of breaking every rule during a first two-year stay. Then we move on to the Spanish Civil War (as a campaigning journalist), marriage to Aneurin Bevan, return to Parliament, her husband’s foundation of the NHS and her work as Minister for the Arts, with the ground-breaking creation of the Open University. In all of these her determination to bring the arts within the reach of the working man and woman was as fervent as her commitment to raise their standard of living.

It’s partly the fervour that she brought to all these (beautifully captured by Robinson) that makes the second half so moving, but also Lindsay Rodden’s sensitive treatment of the death of Bevan and the vivid picture of Lee in old age, still as devoted a theatre-goer and as committed an advocate for the working class as ever.

Mikron usually casts its four actor-musicians in a balanced spread of parts, but here Lauren Robinson dominates proceedings in a remarkable performance at the outset of what should be a very successful career. The other three cover the field, with accents that change at the drop of a hat and quickfire changes from left-wing passion to very silly comedy. Eddie Ahrens overcame indisposition at Bingley to present a sympathetic Aneurin Bevan as well as plenty of doltish Hooray Henries. Georgina Liley, a bit much as Ellen Wilkinson (probably a directorial decision), covers a splendid range from Jennie’s mother onwards, and Mark Emmons displays the right mix of wit and sincerity in a medley of roles.

Marianne McNamara directs with brisk efficiency and Rodden and Sonum Batra come up with some impressive songs: from Has Anybody Here Seen Jennie? (with interspersed bits of the old music hall hit, Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?) through the passionate Vote for Jennie Lee to the evocative Bread and Roses. The cast, especially Liley and Robinson, sing well and accompany themselves on trumpet, violin, guitar and ukulele.

Unaccountably billed as the story of “The Radical MP You’ve Never Heard Of”, the play proves ultimately to be a fine tribute to one of the Labour Party’s heroes.

Touring nationwide.

The Reviews Hub Score

Impressive tribute

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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