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Red Ellen, York Theatre Royal Review

In this Northern Stage co-production, Bird unravels the fiery red-head’s life story

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Image Credit: Pamela Raith

As the second woman to achieve a position in the British parliamentary cabinet, it is no wonder that playwright Caroline Bird wanted to adopt Ellen Wilkinson’s biography for the stage.

In this Northern Stage co-production, Bird unravels the fiery red-head’s life story which saw the achievements of raising the school leaving age from 14-15, introducing free school meals and leading the Jarrow March in 1936.

Though diminutive in stature, especially in comparison to her fellow cast-mates, Bettrys Jones provides a huge stage presence as Ellen, delivering a passionate performance for each of the play’s three hours.

A key motif used throughout the play by director Wils Wilson were Ellen’s asthma attacks, brought on by overwhelming emotion. Not only were such attacks indicative of Ellen’s poor health, but they also added to the frantic nature of Bird’s depiction of Ellen as constantly on the go and never stopping, even for breath, until she had implemented political change.

Such frantic scenes containing Ellen were of course a result of the difficult task of converting a remarkable woman’s life into a three-hour theatre production. With so much to pack in, there were quick transitions and effective costume changes needed from designer Camilla Clarke, which helped depict a new stage in Ellen’s life. However, the result of so many plot narratives occurring successively was that the play felt melodramatic, fittingly for the demanding nature of the plot, but unfortunately at the expense of the characters.

As a result, scenes which moved me, particularly as a Geordie, including the poignant Jarrow March, felt rushed as Bird and Wilson raced to get the scene in before the interval. This was highlighted by the fact that at the end of the play, the Jarrow Marchers returned to the stage naming all the cities they marched through, including Yorkshire’s own Ripon and Harrogate, all the way “to the gates of hell”.

Despite such a chilling line, a more cathartic expression from the audience could have been achieved if the foundation of the Jarrow March scene had more time. If less attention was paid to scenes of farcical squabbling and plate smashing between Herbert Morrison, played by Kevin Lennon, and Ellen after he tried to end their protracted affair, then this could have been accomplished.

Even Bird comments on the fact that despite Ellen’s "herculean efforts, she is largely forgotten by history" and so it seems wasteful to spend so much of the production focusing on her sexual affairs with both Soviet spy Otto (Sandy Batchelor), and Herbert Morrison.

In a spat with Ellen over their affair, Morrison tells Ellen how she is the "most powerful woman in the country" and so questions "what more can you want?". Therefore, through Jones’ compelling Ellen Wilkinson, it would have been more effective to commemorate and remember her achievements rather than promiscuity.

After all, Ellen becoming MP for Middlesbrough East between 1924-31 and for Jarrow from 1935 until her death in 1947, as well as being one of only four women in the House of Commons and Labour’s only female MP in her time, is certainly something that should not be "largely forgotten" by history or the audience.

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