Review: Red Ellen (Touring)

Tuesday 24th May 2022 at York Theatre Royal.


“There is more than one way to kill a revolutionary.”

Caroline Bird’s Red Ellen is the latest in a welcome clutch of new work spotlighting marginalised female figures from history. Ellen Wilkinson was undoubtedly a remarkable figure with a flawed personal life and a career spanning an extraordinary number of movements and roles – here, she is given a whirlwind outing in a production which seeks to celebrate her without necessarily hero-worshipping her.

We are shown an Ellen Wilkinson (Bettrys Jones) who is plucky and blunt, driven and blinkered – and ultimately sincere but flawed. Through involvement with the Women’s Suffrage movement, a run with communists circa 1920-26, a role within Churchill’s wartime cabinet and a life-long fight against fascism and for socialist clout, Wilkinson never stood still. Even her health took a backseat, not to mention her relationships, which are rocky and mostly one-sided, particularly when it comes to the sister, Annie (played with gentle humanity by Helen Katamba) who lives in the shadow of a frenetic sibling with very little interest in her.

But this Ellen isn’t unlikeable – in many ways her chutzpah is suitably endearing and inspiring, but this play doesn’t shy away from depicting her tempestuous, demanding side too. As a woman in a man’s world of politics and as a working class woman on the corridors of Westminster (as the only female labour MP back in 1924 no less), she fits the bill as the “outsider” and she’s entertainingly the thorn in the side of many a male politician as a consequence.

Bettrys Jones’ expressive performance gives this production its beating heart and an unfaltering sense of engagement. Jones’ Ellen rarely walks – she marches. She never sits upright, but always aptly at some form of off-centre angle. She struggles to fall back to her “inside voice” as her whole life sees her on the verge of an impassioned speech. That sense of being a gung-ho go-getter is well placed as Jones barely leaves the stage and energetically carries us through a sprawling narrative which works hard to pack in as many milestones of Wilkinson’s political and personal life as possible.

There are some great turns from a talented ensemble cast too: Jim Kitson’s scheming Churchill; Laura Evelyn’s spirited, charismatic Isabel and Sandy Batchelor’s take on smouldering love interest Otto which is nicely contrasted with the almost hilariously overwrought Herbert (played with great exertion by Kevin Lennon). Of particular note too is Mercedes Assad’s turn as a housewife in an unofficial bomb shelter; a fiery reminder of the way in which working class politicians often shed their origins to better navigate the slippery halls of Westminster.

When it comes to Bird’s script, there are some comic gems sitting alongside many a galvanising speech and the odd moment of moving reflection (never longer than a second or two mind – no time to stand still when Ellen’s involved). But the ambition to do justice to the breadth of Wilkinson’s influence is sometimes at the cost of giving space to allow moments to plant both feet before we are whisked ever onwards through her various peaks and troughs.

Wils Wilson’s direction is firmly fixed on hurtling through the material, mostly via a naturalistic approach, with some departures offering visual flair; Camilla Clarke’s set design sees model houses offer glimpses of the destruction of the Blitz and a canny illusion to boost numbers for the Jarrow Crusade. That said, the packed nature of the piece creates a fragmented sense of time and action which increasingly runs the risk of sacrificing quality in favour of quantity. The endless shifting of Jones from pillar to post as she navigates countless costume changes (sometimes with only a few fleeting moments between) leads to some avoidable lulls and the piece overall feels distinctly over-long.

Red Ellen has a lot to offer in terms of its intriguing, inspirational subject and its talented cast – with Jones in particular responsible for much of the success here. You certainly won’t be bored, but you may need to brace yourself for keeping up!

Red Ellen plays York Theatre Royal until May 28th 2022 – you can find your tickets here.

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