Northern Stage, Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh present Red Ellen, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
UNTIL 2017, all seven of Middlesbrough’s statues had been of men. A poll put Ellen Wilkinson at the top of the list to be the town’s first female on a plinth.
Ellen Wilkinson, you ask? British Communist Party founder member turned Labour MP for Middlesbrough East and later Jarrow. Left-leaning journalist. Leader of the Jarrow Crusade to London when 80 per cent of the workforce were unemployed. Mobiliser of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, taking up the cause against General Franco’s Fascists in the Spanish Civil War.
Member of Churchill’s wartime coalition government, in charge of air raid shelters. As Labour’s first female Minister for Education, she introduced free school milk and raised the leaving age from 14 to 15. A heavy-smoking asthmatic, she died, struggling for breath, her pills ineffectual, in 1947.
That’s the politics; a working-class female MP campaigning for social justice in a toxic, male-dominated world. What else? She had affairs with married men, whether a Soviet Communist spy or Labour government minister Herbert Morrison. She encountered Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway. She was always in a hurry, a flame-haired, 4ft 9 pocket dynamo known as the Elfin Fury and Mighty Atom.
“There are so many Ellens to choose from”, says playwright Caroline Bird, who has decided to highlight pretty much all of them, save for Ellen’s early Communist days, in her biographical play Red Ellen, wherein she picks up the story in 1933.
Just as Ellen, for all her failing health, tries to cram too much into each day, Bird seeks to squeeze too much into her three-hour play, where the diminutive Bettrys Jones brings extraordinary energy to an omnipresent role in which the constant speechifying leaves her voice shorn of light and shade, always pitched on the upwards, climbing a hill against the odds.
Bird’s first draft had run to five hours and it would take another six years of “Ellen running around her head like an unfinished ghost with unfinished business” for Northern Stage’s 2022 touring version to emerge from what became an obsession.
This week’s York run is the closing chapter of the premiere tour, presented in tandem with co-producers Nottingham Playhouse the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, and it is too late for director Wils Wilson to apply the scissors, but if Red Ellen is to have a further life, the story-telling will require more breathing space and selectivity, rather than the overwhelming feeling of needing to reach for an asthma inhaler.
The structure is a series of set pieces, rooted in gender politics and the agenda of politics, some scenes better than others: neither the Einstein scene, where Jones’s Ellen apologises to Mercedes Assad’s awkwardly bewigged Albert for the behaviour of The Anti-Fascist League, nor an exchange at the Europa Hotel with an over-the-top, drunken Hemingway, hits the right note.
Better by far are Ellen’s discussions with Jim Kitson’s north easterner David, burdened by ill health but desperate to undertake the Jarrow March; the political debate with Kitson’s Churchill (who is seen only from behind, with the audience eyes on Ellen); and the end-of-the-affair letdown with Kevin Lennon’s Morrison.
Director Wilson has fun with Ellen’s lack of inches, casting the towering Laura Evelyn as the British Communist activist Isabel for comic effect. Likewise, Wilson and designer Camilla Clarke play with scale: the gramophone player is a giant shell; houses in the street are represented by doll’s houses, on fire at one point for Ellen to put out while on air raid duty. There is visual wit throughout; on occasion, there could be more verbal comedy.
Ellen’s diaries were destroyed after her death, leading to Bird’s need to make “educated guesses” in her play, “imagining the contents in order to get personal”. When it comes to truths beyond political and historical fact, plenty can only be speculative, but the relationship that works best on stage is the one rooted in home truths: the volatile one with her loyal yet frank sister Annie (Helen Katamba), who absorbs all her wounding words but makes the most telling retort.
Passion abounds, in the pioneering Ellen herself, in Bird’s writing, in Jones’s performance, but if the enflamed, exasperated Ellen Wilkinson were to have encountered Red Ellen, she would be cracking the whip, demanding better results for all that exertion.
Review by Charles Hutchinson