Caroline Bird

Red Ellen

04/05/22

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

As a long-established advocate of socialism, I’m sometimes embarrassed to realise how little I know about the movement’s history – so Red Ellen proves to be both informative and entertaining. It’s the story of Labour politician Ellen Wilkinson, a woman who spent her life fighting for female suffrage and the rights of the working classes. As portrayed by Bettrys Jones, she’s a fierce little scrapper, a human powerhouse, who – despite her own struggles with ill health – is always ready to fight for her beliefs

Wilkinson is remembered mostly for her involvement in the infamous but ultimately doomed Jarrow Marches, but Caroline Bird’s play delves into other aspects of Wilkinson’s life: an amusing diversion when she meets up with Albert Einstein (Mercedes Assad); her experiences during the Spanish civil war, when she crosses paths with a drunken Ernest Hemingway (Jim Kitson); a look at her chaotic personal relationships with the shady Otto Gatz (Sandy Batchelor) and with married Labour politician, Herbert Morrison (Kevin Lennon). And there’s also a look at the groundbreaking work she did after the the war, when, as Minister for Education, she introduced free milk for all pupils, something that would stay in place until a certain Tory ‘milk snatcher’ finally undid all her hard work.

It’s a complex play but Wils Wilson’s propulsive direction has Ellen hurtling from one scene to the next, which keeps the pot bubbling furiously, whether she’s arguing with long suffering sister, Annie (Helen Katamba), or with her Communist comrade, Isabel (Laura Evelyn). Camilla Clarke’s expressionistic set design creates a bizarre, nightmarish backdrop to the unfolding story, where a bed can suddenly transform into a motor car, where piles of discarding clothing can lurch abruptly upwards to depict the Jarrow marchers. One of my favourite scenes in this turbulent production depicts Ellen as a fire warden during the blitz, frantically fighting a series of blazes in tiny doll’s houses. It serves as the perfect encapsulation of Ellen’s career in politics.

For a historical tale, her story is powerfully prescient. In the opening scene, she bemoans the rising tide of fascism that threatens to overtake the world – and how in-fighting in the Labour party would inevitably hand the reins of power over to the Tory party time and time again. It’s impossible not to reflect that sadly, very little has changed since those challenging times.

Red Ellen is a fascinating tale, ripped from the pages of political history. It’s not to be missed.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Lyceum Variety Night 3

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04/06/17

Lyceum, Edinburgh

Flint and Pitch’s Variety Nights are fast becoming a thing of legend. Hosts Jenny Lindsay and Sian Bevan are as engaging and irreverent as ever, setting the tone for another fun-filled evening in their company.

Tonight’s proceedings kick off with a song from Maud the Moth, an interesting jazz-classical-fusion band built around the distinctive vocal stylings of Amaya Lopez-Carromero, featuring keyboards, drums, violins and, on the opening number, Queen Maud, electric guitar. It makes for a haunting start and I’m already looking forward to hearing more from them later.

Up next is Kieran Hurley, a storyteller whose schtick, he tells us, doesn’t really lend itself to ten-minute pieces, shorn of context. Still, he manages to contextualise tonight’s reading with wit and brevity, and it’s a real treat: an excerpt from his 2013 play, Beats. Two intertwining monologues tell us the story of an illegal rave – and we’re hanging on to his every word.

Audrey Tait and Michelle Lowe are The Miss’s, a Scottish singing/songwriting duo with a compelling set tonight. Tait’s plaintive voice is the perfect foil for Lowe’s more gutsy vocals, and they absolutely take my breath away. I love these two and could listen all night.

But it’s a variety night, so of course we are moved swiftly on. And it’s fine, because Caroline Bird’s performance poetry is a delight; in fact, she’s our favourite act of the evening. Her diffident, unshowy persona allows her poems to shine – and shine they do. They’re as charming as she is, illuminating dark truths about love, life and mental illness with cheerfulness and compassion. We’ll certainly be seeking out more of her work.

Jack Webb is the first dancer/choreographer to grace the Lyceum Variety Night’s stage, and this is certainly a very striking piece. Let’s be honest, interpretive dance isn’t an area we know much about, and we’re not sure we fully understand all this performance wants to say, but it is nevertheless clearly a corporal feat, all precision and control, conveying pain and a heightened sense of physicality.

It’s safe to say that Mairi Campbell is unique – she plays the viola and sings which is a pretty unusual combination, but she makes it work really effectively. She gives us a brace of memorable folk-tinged songs, the last one involving us all singing along on the chorus, and it’s evident why she won the Instrumentalist of the Year award in 2016.

Kathleen Jamie is a poet in the most traditional sense. She offers us a collection of lyrical pieces based around the beauty of the Scottish landscape and her childhood memories. The one that covers stamp collecting is a particular delight (and that’s not a line you get to say very often). Weirdly, despite winning a whole plethora of awards since her first in 1981, she doesn’t come across as the most confident of performers – but there’s no doubting the quality of her work.

It’s left to Maud the Moth to come on and finish off the night with three more of their excellent songs and highly original songs, before we head back to (as Jenny and Sian point out) the harsh reality of the world. An excellent night then and we only have one minor quibble – why have we still not managed to win the raffle?

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield and Philip Caveney