Ellen Wilkinson

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