Kevin Lennon

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

Charlie Sonata

02/05/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Some playwrights tell their stories in straightforward terms – others prefer to take a more mysterious route, leaving you with several unanswered questions – and Douglas Maxwell’s Charlie Sonata falls very definitely into the latter category. And it’s all the more intriguing for it – if more difficult to pin down in a review. The play, brilliantly directed by Matthew Lenton, is an enchanting, magical tale that flirts with seemingly unconnected ideas: the concept of time travel, a famous fairy story and the era of Britpop.

Chick (Sandy Grierson), a hard drinking but immensely affable drifter, returns from London to his Scottish hometown when he hears that the teenage daughter of his old pal, Gary (Kevin Lennon), is in a coma following an accident. Chick hopes to reconnect with Gary –  and with his other best friend, Jackson (Robert Jack), but events keep getting in his way and he continually finds his thoughts shunted unexpectedly back to earlier, happier days at Stirling University, when the three young lads had no responsibilities. Jackson is fond of expounding his “non-negotiable” theories about time-travel. Chick is about to discover how negotiable they really are.

Pretty soon, Chick is back in the present day, hanging around the hospital, where he encounters mysterious ‘bad fairy’ Meredith (Meg Fraser), who is struggling with her own issues. Can she and Chick work together to release Gary’s daughter, Audrey (Lauren Grace), from her ‘Sleeping Beauty’ coma?

Nothing here is ever quite what it seems and, as the narrative switches effortlessly backwards and forwards in time, the scenes are linked by a commentary by The Narrator (Robbie Gordon), which adds to the story’s mythical feel. Grierson plays Chick with just the right mixture of vulnerability and intoxication – I’ve rarely been so convinced by an onstage ‘drunk’ – while the inventive production design by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita and the ethereal lighting by Kai Fischer, keep creating moments of real wonder that help to reinforce that all-important sense of magic.

This is a challenging but ultimately rewarding piece of theatre, based around – in Douglas Maxwell’s own words – ‘a fairy tale wish for another chance to make everything right.’ The audience’s enthusiastic response seems to confirm that this production has achieved its aims.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney