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Culture Theatre

Review: Red Ellen

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Red Ellen Press Image
Still from Red Ellen.

Bettrys Jones’ fiery portrayal of Ellen Wilkinson in Red Ellen, at the Lyceum this May, presents both the achievements and the failures of the remarkable Labour MP in the 1930s and 40s. Red Ellen manages to perfectly balance its portrayal of Ellen’s political passion and commitment without shying away from her failures and messy personal life. 

Ellen Wilkinson’s energy and drive is flawlessly captured on stage by Jones. While only 4 foot 8 inches, Ellen is impossible to ignore. As a zealous socialist and member of the Labour Party, she spent her life fighting against fascism in Spain and Germany, as well as campaigning for workers’ rights in her home constituency (Jarrow), working in the Ministry of Home Security within Chamberlin’s all-party cabinet and later at the Minister of Education. A focus of the play is the challenge that plagued Ellen’s work; her desire to support all the values and causes that she believed in, despite their often-contradictory elements. 

Jobs for Jarrow - Red Ellen
Still from Red Ellen.

Ellen’s political passion is unrelentless. In one of the sex scenes with a communist spy, she continues to rattle on about her plans to expose the horrors of fascism while simultaneously orgasming. The audience is invited to laugh at her absurdity and inability to tone down her political drive. These funny moments, intertwined with the often heavy subject matter, mean the almost three-hour play passes quickly.

In the current political climate, Red Ellen hits especially hard. Ellen shouts about the inaction of the British government in response to Hitler’s persecution of Jewish people. She fights against the weakness of her party in opposition to the Conservatives. She introduces free milk and school meals to schools, declaring that there is nothing complicated about not letting children go hungry. Something that the Tories have had a hard time grasping during the pandemic. Watching her desperately fight for what is right, yet constantly coming up against challenges and barricades, creates a strong sense of disillusionment. This disillusionment and anger with politics is something which most of us are undeniably feeling now as well.

Sometimes, Ellen’s headstrong and blinkered approach leads her into trouble. While it’s clear that her motives are good, this doesn’t stop her from making mistakes. Under the Ministry of Home Security, she supervised the construction of Morrison Shelters in peoples’ gardens, which attempted to replace the tube stations as safer bomb shelters. Yet, on one of her visits, she is challenged by a woman who argues that the home shelters are just a way for the government to pass off responsibility for deaths to individuals at home.  These moments remind one of the impossibilities of politics. Despite Ellen’s good intentions and positive achievements, there are some people who will inevitably be harmed. 

Despite being left with a slight feeling of hopelessness for the political system which seems so entrenched in protecting the elite, watching the small and fierce Ellen march around the stage demanding change and revolution was refreshing. Caroline Bird succeeds in capturing the ups and downs of Ellen’s political career and messy personal life into a funny fast-paced play. You will not regret taking three hours from your evening to watch a fiery, witty, unconventional women challenge the male-dominated political elite, making these uptight conservative men squirm. 

Images courtesy of Pamela Raith