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A Revolutionary Life- Red Ellen at York Theatre Royal

Politicking, protesting, warring and romancing- Ellen Wilkinson did it all at a time when women were supposed to stay at home and the working classes were expected to mind their place. Caroline Bird’s ‘Red Ellen’ takes the audience on a rip-roaring journey through backroom deals, bloody wars, long marches and lovers’ bedrooms. Through it we stand shoulder to shoulder with a woman who gave her all to an array of causes, ultimately paying the highest price.

The play opens with Ellen (Bettrys Jones) speaking at the Labour Conference where the tension between the red-haired working-class firebrand and the well-spoken and mostly male party top brass is made plain. They urge moderation while she preaches an uncompromising brand of socialism. It’s an argument all too familiar to many in leftist circles today, especially in light of the changing of the guard in Labour in recent years. Similarities between then and now do not stop there- the whole first act takes place as the spectre of war overshadows Europe.

Ellen barnstorms through some of the biggest causes of the time during the first act.  We see her organise and lead the Jarrow March on London, arguing with a local official about protesters’ getting their dole payments. Her disillusionment with Labour Party politics sees her drawn into the orbit of British communists and she strikes up a romance with Soviet spy Otto Katz (Sandy Batchelor). She then travels to Spain and into the country’s civil war between Republican and Nationalist forces, along with all the infighting among leftists which plagued the former and soured Ellen’s perception of the brand of communism imposed on the movement by the USSR and Josef Stalin.

Picture credit: Pamela Raith

The play sees Ellen bounce between the moderation of Labour and the radicalism of the far left, all brought out through run ins with the likes of Herbert Morrison (Kevin Lennon) and communist agitator Isabel Brown (Laura Evelyn). Ellen’s family life is no less tempestuous, with the play punctuated by clashes with her sister Annie (Helen Katamba). It all adds up to the intensity which coloured the historical Ellen’s life. Car crashes, confrontations with civilians during the Blitz, late-night exchanges with Winston Churchill and an affair with Herbert Morrison while the world is engulfed in the Second World War. The second act sees Ellen throw her lot in with mainstream politics, ultimately joining the post-war Labour government and bringing her drive to bear on reforms which culminate in free school meals and milk for children. But Ellen’s failing health and increasing reliance on a cocktail of drugs leaves the audience wondering whether it is all too much, until the very end.

Caroline Bird, who also penned ‘Red Ellen’ the novel, said in an interview that Ellen’s life was so full of material that you could reach into it and pull something new out every time. The play is full of anecdotes, stories, epic happenings and unlikely encounters. Bird’s admiration for the protagonist shines through. She clearly stands as an icon for the author, being one of only a handful of female politicians in Britain at the time. Her energy and passion, both in and out of the political limelight, is brought thudding home by Jones’ performance. The actor’s deft delivery is all the more impressive given her CV. She came from a run of the family-friendly ‘The Fir Tree’ at Shakespeare’s Globe in November before throwing herself into the morass of 1930s politics. Her high-octane performance brings drama and life to material which is perhaps better known to history nerds than wider audiences.

Picture credit: Pamela Raith

The performances are also a testament to the director Wils Wilson whose efforts convey the drama of Ellen’s life and one of the most tumultuous periods of not only British but world history. The set, courtesy of Camilla Clarke, was also a highlight. The actors double up as the team moves props into place, including a Spanish Republican flag, rifles and furniture. As Ellen moves through her life and career, we get a sense of an accumulation of all her past experiences, charged with meaning, conveying her conviction and sacrifice but also haunting her like a gang of ghosts.

The current run ended in York at the back end of May and it was a privilege to see it climax right here in the city.

Written by Joe Gerrard