Review: Red Ellen at York Theatre Royal

This is an inspiring story told by playwright Caroline Bird about a working-class MP who fought tirelessly for social justice in an unfair world. Naturally, it didn’t help that she was also a woman!

By Angie Millard

It’s a disgrace that she is largely forgotten just as it is a scandal that in 2022 Female MPs are still telling us about toxic sexism in parliament. Things have changed but one is tempted to say: ‘by how much?’

This is a hard role to play but Bettrys Jones turns in a formidable performance as she creates this complex character. Her energy fuels the action of the piece and is fully supported by the ensemble who take on a range of parts. My least favourite was Einstein to whom Ellen made an apology for the behaviour of The Anti-fascist League. Mercedes Assad tried her best but for whatever reason, a woman wearing a white pantomime wig failed to make a favourable impression.

Her sister, Helen Katamba, acts as her foil. She appears sometimes as devil’s advocate and at other times her loyal friend. The scene where Ellen harangues Annie after the death of their father is particularly moving. We see the one who has been there at his death being attacked for not keeping him alive longer. Katamba plays the role with dignity. The script is tight and exact.

The author writes using instinct and probability as Ellen’s diaries were destroyed after her death. She takes us through the character’s transition from founder member of the British Communist Party to becoming the first female Labour MP. Whether she is consorting with spies and revolutionaries during The Spanish Civil War or leading The March from Jarrow, Jones plays every moment truthfully and with utter conviction.

There is a fascinating scene when Ellen is part of the coalition government during the second World War. Jim Kitson avoids the obvious Churchill clichés to achieve a plausible version of  shrewd statesmanship.

The passage of time is cleverly achieved by using set pieces. I particularly enjoyed the war sequences when Ellen wrangled with folk looking for better bomb shelter or escaped from a hospital (with a skull fracture) to help in the blitz. The image of her hosing down lit doll’s houses was very effective and the idea of leaving them on the stage together with every other evidence of her chaotic existence became symbolic.

Throughout the play we learn that this woman was a sad casualty of her life. We see a sordid scene between her and her lover: Herbert Morrison, played with truthful venality by Kevin Lennon, and later witness her death as she fights for breath in an asthma attack. The director, Wils Wilson says that she achieved so much against the odds but the author admits that Ellen wanted a team in the Labour Party, rather than factions and sadly, the Left are just as divided today.

Theatrically, I felt the first half was much inferior to the second. After the interval, the play gained pace and the theatrical devices began to make sense. I loved the use of an actress who is small enough to be overshadowed by the height of others in the ensemble. I understood the endless changing of props and costume (which annoyed me earlier) as things began to collect on stage and paid witness to her messy life, Wils Wilson has directed with precision and clarity.

Why didn’t I ever hear of this woman who brought in free school meals and raised the school leaving age? Why do men take the accolades? 

Why does a woman MP crossing her legs in parliament cause a stir? 

I leave you with this thought: there is an imbalance of gender in politics. This play should make us think about that at the very least.

Red Ellen is being performed at York Theatre Royal between 24 and 28 May 2022. The set and costume design is by Camilla Clarke. Music and sound is by Jasmin Kent Rodgman. The lighting design is by Kai Fischer. The Movement director is Patricia Suarez and the Assistant Director is Bex Bowsher This is a Northern stage, Nottingham playhouse and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh combined production.

The cast were:

Ellen Wilkinson – Bettrys Jones

Helen Katamba

Laura Evelyn

Sandy Bachelor

Kevin Lennon

Mercades Assad

Jim Kitson