Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – until 21 May 2022
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Red Ellen, at the Lyceum, co-produced with the Nottingham Playhouse and Northern Stage, suffers from many of the faults that affect biographical drama, and is far too long for its own good. Nevertheless, it has an abundance of compassion and an excellent central performance from Bettrys Jones.
One of the first female MPs (and only the second female Cabinet Minister) and a local MP during the Jarrow March, Ellen Wilkinson was also a fighter for women’s suffrage, campaigner against fascism, sometime Communist and advocate of wider access to education.
Caroline Bird’s play, directed by Wils Wilson, makes use of the absence of any inside accounts of Wilkinson – her personal papers being burned after her death – to re-imagine much of her private life, and integrate it with her political career.
The perennial problems of attempting to tell a real person’s life story on stage, notably those of how to frame the tale, or of what to include and what to exclude, are very much in evidence here. A great deal of of it is elegantly done – we start with Wilkinson already firmly established in the Labour party, with some backstory economically sketched in as we go.
However, it is still far too long, touching three hours. The second half in particular, at nearly 90 minutes, is something of a slog. This could be excused as being an attempt at constructing an epic account of mid-20th century politics, but it does not quite come off like that.
Indeed, the more overtly political sections are far less compelling than those dealing with Ellen’s personal life. Figures such as Communist organiser Isabel Brown (despite Laura Evelyn’s carefully pitched performance) are represented more as types than as rounded humans, while events like the Spanish Civil War are portrayed somewhat superficially.
Famous names including Einstein and Hemingway are deliberately presented in a manner that could most charitably be described as expansive.
Even the more convincing personal interactions are subject to diminishing returns. The relationship between Ellen and her sister Annie (touchingly played by Helen Katamba) would have more impact if more sparingly used.
Throughout it all, however, Jones puts in a magnetic performance as Wilkinson. Her relationships with Czech spy Otto (Sandy Batchelor) and Labour grandee Herbert Morrison (Kevin Lennon) are played with real depth. The legendary drive and energy of the ‘fiery particle’ are beautifully evoked, as well as her doubts and conflicts.
These uncertainties are among the most urgent parallels in the play, with the dichotomy between Wilkinson’s pacifism and her desire to fight fascism having an unfortunate topical resonance. Her frustrations at the double standards applied to men and women are also sadly timeless.
These issues are sometimes expressed using suspiciously modern idioms, but the language is largely effective and often gloriously evocative. The intrusion of modern preoccupations is also reflected in the way that some of the cast (like so may twenty-first century actors) look less than comfortable smoking on stage.
Bettrys Jones and Helen Katamba. Pic: Pamela Raith
There is an unevenness of tone, and the ending in particular is less than satisfactory (although another opportunity to see Jim Kitson’s wonderfully played Jarrow steelworker David is thoroughly welcome). Overall, however, there is enough heart and brain in the play to keep it going.
Camilla Clarke’s set is imposing and versatile, with Kai Fischer’s lighting adding to the expressionistic effect. The more physical elements of Wilson’s direction do not work as well as they sometimes do; there seems to be too much falling over, and not all of the movement has the necessary snap.
This, like the more homespun design elements – add a steering wheel to a bed to make it a car, and so on – might work well in an enclosed space. In the Lyceum, and particularly from the circle, it loses much of its impact.
Just like so much on show here, the main problem is an excess of ideas rather than a lack of them. Which, as faults go, is a pretty excusable one. While the production may be too diffuse to convince, it still has a great deal going for it.
Running time: Two hours and 55 minutes (including one interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, EH3 9AX
Wednesday 4 – Saturday 21 May 2022.
Evenings: Mon-Sat 7.30pm; Matinees: Wed, Thurs, Sat 2.30 pm
Socially Distanced Performances: Wed 11
Information and tickets: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/red-ellen
Bettrys Jones and Kevin Lennon (as Herbert Morrison). Pic: Pamela Raith