REVIEW: Caroline Bird’s political drama Red Ellen at York Theatre Royal ***

Bettrys Jones’s indefatigable Ellen Wilkinson MP in Red Ellen

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

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

Who was Ellen Wilkinson, the pocket dynamo revolutionary Labour politician? Let Red Ellen tell her crusading story

Rallying call: Bettrys Jones as Ellen Wilkinson MP, the groundbreaking first female Minister for Education, in Red Ellen

WHO was the Elfin Fury, the Mighty Atom, the Fiery Particle?

The answer is Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947), a working-class northern woman in a man’s world, whose presence inside the walls of Westminster prompted the reaction: “If that is not espionage, I do not know what is.”

Seven years since the initial commission from Lorne Campbell – Northern Stage’s artistic director at the time – playwright and poet Caroline Bird’s play Red Ellen has taken flight at last, “full of life, passion and humour” in Wils Wilson’s touring production.

Next stop, York Theatre Royal, from May 24 to 28, in the wake of Northern Stage turning the spotlight on another should-be-better-known inspiring political story in The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff at the Theatre Royal last October.

Labour of love: “I knew little about Ellen, but then I got obsessed,” says playwright Caroline Bird

“Ellen was a complex person by anyone’s standards and she never stopped, but despite her herculean efforts, she is largely forgotten by history,” says Leeds-born Caroline. “The irony, of course, about ‘forgotten women of history’ is invariably the facts of their lives turn out to be acutely memorable: they’re not forgotten because they’re forgettable.

“I’ve been living with Ellen Wilkinson in my head for seven years now and I can honestly say, after writing this play, Ellen has done the impossible: she has given me back a glimmer of faith in politics.

“We need politicians like Ellen, and we also need to look after them and support them. She failed at so many things, and yet she was a total, stonking, miraculous, life-affirming, bl**dy wonderful triumph. A bright and particular star. I hope that some of Ellen’s light can still reach us all the way down here, and that this play might reignite a spark or two.” 

In a nutshell, Red Ellen depicts a woman “forever on the right side of history, forever on the wrong side of life, caught between revolutionary and parliamentary politics, as she fights against the odds with an unstoppable, reckless energy for a better world”. 

On the front foot: Ellen Wilkinson (Bettrys Jones, centre) leading the Jarrow March

These are the facts: Ellen Wilkinson, MP for Middlesbrough East and later Jarrow, campaigned tirelessly for social change, raising the school-leaving age, bringing in free school meals and leading the Jarrow March from the North East to London through York, Nottingham and the Midlands to deliver a petition to reduce unemployment and poverty. 

Not only was she the only female minister in Attlee’s government, she also served as a vital member of Churchill’s war cabinet, taking sole charge of air raid shelters as “the Shelter Queen” during the Second World War.  

Further afield, Ellen campaigned for Britain to aid the fight against Franco’s Fascists in Spain, battled to save Jewish refugees in Nazi Germany and published some of the first anti-fascist literature in Britain. 

She encountered Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway, had affairs with Communist spies and government ministers alike but still found herself on the outside looking in.  

The short and the long of it: “Mighty Atom” Ellen Wilkinson MP (Bettrys Jones) and British Communist activist Isabel Brown (Laura Evelyn) in Red Ellen

Rather like her under-appreciated place in British political history, Caroline? “When I was commissioned, I knew little about Ellen, but then I got obsessed,” she says. “I found most people hadn’t heard of her, but it’s like a magician’s top hat: the more you reach in, the more material you find.”

Ellen’s personal papers were burnt after her death, leaving gaps in the story. “I wasn’t interested in writing a eulogy; I wanted to focus on both the personal and political side of her and how her personal side affected her political life,” says Caroline.

“In the absence of her papers, the play is fictionalised, in that I don’t have written proof, but everything has been written with the clout of research behind it for me to make a dramatic representation of her personality and what makes her a beacon of humanity.”

Ellen was always in such a rush, always running, that she often fell over. “She was only 4ft 9 tall, she just couldn’t move fast enough to do everything she wanted to do – and she had asthma too – but nothing would stop her,” says Caroline. “Like when she was driving in a blackout in the war, colliding with lorry and fracturing her skull but went back to work.”

Ellen Wilkinson (Bettrys Jones) speaks out as a lone working-class northern woman in a man’s world in Caroline Bird’s Red Ellen

Caroline felt “sad and reflective” when being struck by Red Ellen’s pertinence as she wrote her story. “There’s a feeling that Ellen spent her whole life walking, marching down a moving walkway that was going in the opposite direction,” she says.

“She had the wind in her face. Sometimes she was having to fight just to stay still. And sometimes it feels like that now. We have to fight to keep what we’ve got before we can even move further along – and there was so much further to go on this march, so much further to go. 

“And the left is divided. That’s the other thing that Ellen really fought for. She wanted unity.”

Northern Stage, Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh present Red Ellen, York Theatre Royal, May 24 to 28, 7.30pm nightly; 2pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

The tour poster for Red Ellen, marching into York from Tuesday