Red Ellen – Royal Lyceum Theatre

Written by Caroline Bird

Directed by Wils Wilson

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The eve of Local Council Elections in the UK seems a rather fitting time for the opening of Caroline Bird’s semi-biography of revolutionary activist and parliamentary political shaker-upper Ellen Wilkinson at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh.

And though Red Ellen, Labour MP who staunchly opposed the party’s luke-warm indifference to the Führer’s rise in Germany at the dawn of WWII, is traditionally associated with her March for Jobs for Jarrow, Bird channels a specific side of Wilkinson for the production; the woman who makes her mark as an outsider, compromising for the opportunities of power, burning at both ends to face every injustice she can. Chartering the endless campaigns of a woman at the heart of it all; saving Jewish refugees, Challenging Westminster’s grip, campaigning for British intervention to fight Spanish Fascists, engaging in affairs with colleagues and communist spies – but somehow still finds herself remaining on the outside looking in.

Wils Wilson casts a series of lofty co-stars, accentuating the comedy elements of Birds script as the shortness of Ellen, and no doubt to reinforce the already obvious circumstances in which Ellen finds herself surrounded by competition, doubts, and various political (and patriarchal) uphill battles. But there’s one performance which reaches the heights others envy. Determined, bullish and endearing, the gravitational influence surrounding Bettrys Jones draws all elements of the narrative into her world, channelling Ellen’s notorious drive to push herself to the forefront of every situation – for better, for worse, but with honest and clear intention.

Manchester-born backbencher, and future Secretary of State for Education, Ellen Wilkinson is remembered for her pre-war activism and eventual place within the post-war cabinet. A significant tour-de-force, Jones remains firmly entrenched despite the provocations of emotions and staves off the usual bluster of political aggrandising. There’s a sense of enthusiasm, crossing off and even grounding the expectant contradictions of a politician who places the fight against injustice above everything – romance, friends, and her own health. A powerhouse who channels the attention of the room across the three-hour production, who leaves opponents on their heels and audiences with smiles.

And Bird’s redemptive writing is not solely a celebration of a woman who pioneered independence of belief and sexual liberation, but a damning inditement of the continued misplays of the political Left, where even to this very day we fail to heed the lessons, we ought to by now; ‘It is not the triumph of the right, but the catastrophic failure of the Left.’ A frustration instilled not only by Jones but by the determination and carefree exterior of Laura Evelyn’s Isabel, who wears their less than subtle intentions and strategies on their sleeve – a refreshing take away from the more stuffy and stereotypical male presences onstage.

So, imagine the gritted teeth and frustrations as the foundations of this multi-dimensional woman (Ellen) are perplexingly struck at the kneecaps in the second Act – where the sincerity and anxious nature stretches into a mess of interpersonal relations, where all the nuanced character development as a fiercely defiant woman must be plastered thickly as an unnecessary reinforcement on Ellen’s validity as a politician, as a person, and a woman. Aggravating, given the electric charge of passionate understanding between Kevin Lennon as colleague Herbert, future Deputy PM, and Jones becomes wasted time and dilutes already solidified aspects.

Stumbling into the likes of Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway, Wilson’s direction oddly dips into a tepid humorous romp which unfortunately opens the eyes to peculiar performance choices which fit neither into the production’s more absurdist imagery of party-political caricatures, nor the more in-depth tragic truth of events. Where Jim Kitson’s smoke clouded Churchill fits within the confines of the show’s intentions, the less steady footings of Sandy Batchelor’s Otto or Helen Katamba shift from integral to the theatrical experience, and fodder padding out the runtime.

A once-blooming rose, a red rose, withering as unnecessary elements are brought into the fray, Wilson’s heavy-handed approach causes the production to be somehow over, yet underworked. Elements which require a tender hand have been left underdeveloped, and aspects, where triumph is apparent, receive unnecessary investment, losing meaning.

And as the cascading pieces of Camilla Clarke’s set strew themselves across the stage, Red Ellen skirts the outer edges of a political fairy-tale, where the provocation is subdued by the abstraction of the truth, as familiar faces take a meaningful turn, and friendly beings become spectres of a bygone time for Ellen. Inspirational, Jone’s performance and aesthetical design choices certainly make for an engaging evening – one which pertains elements to march forward, always.

“A Withered Rose”

Red Ellen runs at the Royal Lyceum until May 21st.

Tickets for which can be obtained here.

Photo Credit – Pamela Raith

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