A Northern Stage, Nottingham Playhouse & Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh production
York Theatre Royal, 24-28 May
Red Ellen – at York Theatre Royal from 24-28 May – is a remarkable new play by multi award-winning poet and playwright Caroline Bird that tells the inspiring and epic story of Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, who was forever on the right side of history, forever on the wrong side of life. Caught between revolutionary and parliamentary politics, Ellen fights with an unstoppable, reckless energy for a better world.
A working class woman in a man’s world, Ellen Wilkinson campaigned tirelessly for social change – 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.
She was the only female minister in Attlee’s government, and served as a vital member of Churchill’s cabinet, taking sole charge of air raid shelters during the war.
Further afield, she 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 the UK.
Running (often quite literally) into the likes of Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway, she had affairs with communist spies and government ministers. But, despite all of this, she still found herself – somehow – on the outside looking in.
Caroline Bird says:
“Ellen was a complex person by anyone’s standards and she never stopped, but despite her herculean efforts, she is largely forgotten by history. 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 about six 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, bloody 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.”
Bettrys Jones plays Ellen Wilkinson. The rest of the cast are Helen Katamba who plays Ellen’s sister, Annie Wilkinson; Laura Evelyn plays British Communist activist Isabel Brown; Sandy Batchelor plays Czech agent Otto Katz; Kevin Lennon plays Labour politician and Leader of London County Council Herbert Morrison; Mercedes Assad plays Mr Ansley, a representative for the Jarrow Labour Exchange; and Jim Kitson plays David, a local man from Jarrow.
Director Wils Wilson says:
“I am excited to be telling Ellen’s story – she had an incredible life and achieved so much, against the odds. Her story deserves to be known far and wide and I’m very happy to be part of bringing her to a wider public. I’m also very excited to work on Caroline’s brilliant script – it’s full of life, compassion and humour. Ellen’s life was a whirl of action and passion and the play takes the audience on quite a ride.”
Set and costume design is by Linbury Prize-winning designer Camilla Clarke who has worked with the Royal Court, Gate Theatre, Leeds Playhouse, Soho Theatre, The Unicorn Theatre and the Royal Lyceum Theatre.
Music and sound design is by Jasmin Kent Rodgman whose music and live productions have been performed across the UK and internationally with partners including London Fashion Week, World Music Festival Shanghai, Edinburgh International Festival, Wilderness Festival, Roundhouse, Shoreditch Town Hall, Barbican, Oxford Playhouse and the Royal Albert Hall. The Felling Male Voice Choir will perform the Jarrow March song written by Jasmin Kent Rodgman with lyrics by Caroline Bird. Lighting design is by Kai Fischer.
Movement direction is by Patricia Suarez (Orpheus in the Record Shop/Leeds Playhouse and BBC), and intimacy director is Vanessa Coffey. Bex Bowsher is RTYDS Resident Assistant Director on the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme.
Red Ellen has been published by Nick Hern Books, and was shortlisted for the 2021 George Devine Award, recognising new writing and powerful voices.
“What’s made me sad and reflective in terms of writing the play, is just how pertinent it is today. There’s a feeling that Ellen spent her whole life walking, marching down a moving walkway that was going in the opposite direction. 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. She was like, if we’re going to embody any kind of energy we need to have a team rather than factions. And she was right that squabbling on the left does strengthen the right. And so many of the speeches and the questions and the trouble that she was trying to illuminate are exactly the same now.”