DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Red Ellen – York Theatre Royal

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Writer: Caroline Bird

Director: Wils Wilson

Let’s start with the known facts. Ellen Wilkinson was born in 1891, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920, renounced the Communist Party when she became a Labour MP in 1924 and lost her seat in 1926. Out of power, she built her influence as a left-wing writer until she returned to Parliament in 1935 for Jarrow. Thereafter she gained fame through the Jarrow March, set up the Spanish Medical Aid Committee in response to the Civil War, joined the National Government during the war with responsibility for air raid shelters and became Minister for Education after the war. She died in 1947 of pneumonia exacerbated by ingestion of prescription drugs – inquest verdict: accidental death.

So, given all that, what should Caroline Bird concentrate on? Her affair with Soviet spy Otto (Sandy Batchelor), obviously, and her personal and sexual relationship with Herbert Morrison (Kevin Lennon), Deputy Prime Minister to Attlee. We see Isabel (Laura Evelyn), a propagandising Communist, in opposition to Ellen, her huge height advantage emphasised by the strangest of costumes. The Jarrow March does get serious attention, with Jim Kitson’s turn as a would-be marcher, but the Spanish Civil War moves from flags and slogans to Hemingway in the Europa Hotel – wrong myth for Ellen Wilkinson and an absurdly over-the-top performance.

Things begin at the Labour Party Conference of 1933, Ellen out of Parliament, and the first half continues to trace her career to the Jarrow March. The course of events finds Ellen straining her voice over and over again in fury and passion and leaping into bed with Otto with great alacrity. The scene-shifting and the use of other actors to proffer clothes or drinks gives a Brechtian feel to proceedings.

After the interval (well, some 10-15 minutes after the interval, after the silly Spanish Civil War scene) things start to look up a little. We get some grown-up politics in conversation with Winston Churchill and a confrontation with victims of bomb attack. The Morrison affair is treated with some delicacy, Kevin Lennon only a few hand and arm gyrations from a nice performance.

Wils Wilson’s production for Northern Stage plays fast and loose with gender and has a comic book feel to it, and Kai Fischer’s lighting and Camilla Clarke’s set (gradually disappearing under a rain of rubbish) have the necessary flair and imagination.

That leaves Bettrys Jones as Ellen Wilkinson. It is a remarkable performance, conveying the dynamo Wilkinson reputedly was, but for much of the evening pitched at an insistently uncomfortable level of passion. Caroline Bird writes in the programme, “There are so many Ellens to choose from”, and it’s not always easy to see why she chose this one.

Runs until 28th May 2022.

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