DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Red Ellen – Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne

Reviewer: Jonathan Cash

Writer: Caroline Bird

Director: Wils Wilson

Music: Jasmin Kent Rodgman

After campaigning for women’s suffrage, through being a founder member of the British Communist Party, and campaigning tirelessly against all forms of injustice, Ellen Wilkinson became one of the first female Labour MPs in 1924. Her conspicuous and controversial parliamentary career culminated in becoming Minister for Education in Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour Government. Along the way, she was a journalist and an author. Her achievements were many, but she is chiefly remembered for her association with the Jarrow March in 1936, when she was MP for the town.

Caroline Bird’s play sets out to bring to life the woman behind those achievements, with all her flaws as well as her virtues. She paints a 3-dimensional portrait that is as believable as it is compelling. As a study in diminutive dynamism, Bettrys Jones’ portrayal of Ellen is a tour de force. Much is demanded of her and she delivers. Funny, fiery and compassionate she steers her way on a quixotic progress through the Spanish Civil War, fighting fascism at home and abroad and slowly becoming wise to the less than trustworthy tactics of international Communism.

Sandy Batchelor supports her well as Otto, a charmingly unscrupulous Russian spy. Kevin Lennon brings humour and conviction to the role of Herbert Morrison, her cabinet colleague and lover. Jim KItson twinkles in a gently humorous portrayal of a would-be Jarrow marcher and as an instantly recognisable Winston Churchill.

In front of a set of heavy wooden panels, designed by Camilla Clarke, lending a monolithic feel and sense of period, Ellen goes through time and place, with a stream of visible scene and costume changes, all the normal artifices of theatre exposed. This is signposted in an emphatically Brechtian beginning when the actors literally step into the shoes of their characters. The changes are cleverly choreographed but, at times, seem to distract from the action.

In biographical theatre, there are several challenges. The first is deciding what to leave out. Some historians may point to notable omissions or wish for a slightly different focus, but Bird seems to have done a good job of balancing the political and the personal elements. The audience sees the key points of Wilkinson’s career, as well as her human progress through her stormy but loving relationship with her sister and a series of ill-fated affairs with married men, leading to her ultimate isolation.

A further challenge is that reality does not always deliver a satisfactory ending in the way that fiction can. Wilkinson died of an overdose of drugs, aged just 55. In line with the coroner’s verdict at the time, Bird has decided the death was accidental. Bird chooses to close by listing the ports of call of the Jarrow March. Perhaps a review of her successes rather than the heroic failure with which she is already associated might have served her memory better. Or perhaps Bird intends this as a metaphor for Wilkinson’s frustration at the things Britain’s misogynistic and imperialist society prevented her from achieving.

One final thought; the first act ends most effectively with The Jarrow March Song, written by Bird and Jasmin Kent Rodgman. It conjures the thought that Wilkinson’s story, with little alteration, could work splendidly as a musical.

Runs until 9th April 2022

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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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