Helen Katamba

Red Ellen


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 Christmas Tales


Lyceum Online

God, how we’ve missed The Lyceum! We’ve seen so many wonderful productions here over the years and it really doesn’t help that we live just around the corner, and so see it standing forlorn and empty on an almost daily basis. The production team for Christmas Tales had hoped to be able to admit socially distanced audiences to these live performances, had even gone to the lengths of adapting the stage to accommodate them, but it was not to be. So, in the end, Christmas Tales is a streaming-only affair.

Designed as a kind of family-friendly advent calendar, eight short plays are available to watch for free on the Lyceum’s website – and this pay-for-view special features four longer tales, streamed live direct from the theatre’s stage. The pieces vary in tone and are linked by some truly spellbinding folk tunes. We are treated to The Christmas Ghost by Louise Ironside, the story of a young boy (Ryan Hunter) discovering an unexpected presence in his house. Jackie Kay’s Christmas with Angela Davis is the evocative memoir of a young Glaswegian girl (Helen Katamba) falling under the spell of the imprisoned activist after seeing her face on that famous poster.

There’s an interval at the midway point (though of course, we miss the chattering crowd in the bar) and then we’re back for the second half.

The Returning of the Light by Lynda Radley is the stirring saga of a young girl (Kirsty Findlay)’s quest to bring the sunlight back to her winter-ravaged village. Finally, my favourite of the quartet, A Cold Snap by Shona Reppe is the story of Carole (Irene Allan), a contemporary suburban Scrooge, who finds herself forced to ‘celebrate’ the festive season by a mischievous Norwegian sprite.

There’s a genuine air of magic throughout the show, with the cast utilising the full depth of the Lyceum’s extended stage to great effect. A Cold Snap in particular uses the format of film to canny effect, with ever more elaborate festive decorations seeming to appear out of nowhere.

Afterwards, we head out for our nightly walk around the empty city and, quite by chance, bump into Ryan Hunter, on his way back to his lodgings, guitar across his back. We’re able to congratulate him, which is, I suppose, the closest that any of the cast of this charming show can hope to get to the hearty round of applause they deserve.

But this is 2020 and we must be realistic. Until we can safely return to the theatre, shows like this serve as a timely reminder of how truly enchanting the theatre can be – and of how profoundly we are missing it.

4 stars

Philip Caveney