Sunday, July 14

Jennie Lee – Marsden Mechanics Hall

Over two million people have graduated from Open University courses, and most of them are probably blissfully unaware their futures have been changed forever because Labour MP Jennie Lee was totally committed to the idea of education for all.

The rich life story of a politician who moved from gesture politics to understanding how being in power can change lives for the better is a natural fit for Mikron Theatre as they begin their 52nd year touring the country on their specially adapted barge.

Lindsay Rodden offers a fast-paced account of an intelligent working-class woman who rose from the poverty of the Scottish coalfields to become Westminster’s youngest MP aged 24, and there is a terrible irony that she couldn’t even vote for herself as only women aged 30 plus could cast a ballot in that byelection in 1929. It’s a typical roller coaster couple of hours with Mikron full of songs, laughs and passion as Jennie joins the fight during the Spanish Civil War, returns to parliament in the 1945 Labour landslide, marries and loses Nye Bevan before becoming the first Minister for the Arts as she drives through the Open University that opened in 1969.

Photo: Robling Photography

Jennie Lee feels a little unbalanced as it mainly focuses on Lee’s early life and career when she was more enamoured with slogans, unlike the more pragmatic Bevan, and there is less about the achievement that is her lasting legacy. Rhetoric is undoubtedly more dramatic, but it does skirt over why a former radical joined a centrist Labour Government under Harold Wilson. But those are minor quibbles, probably not shared by a very enthusiastic audience, some of whom looked like they might have enjoyed Mikron’s first season back in 1972.

Mikron’s model is four actor/musicians playing all the parts and singing the songs on a simple set that can be put up anywhere from an allotment to a village hall as the cast change characters by merely swapping hats and accents. They regularly smash through the fourth wall as we all become part of the show, so you do a lot of work at a Mikron production, but it all adds to the experience and is why people come back year after year.

Lauren Robinson had the seemingly easy part just being Jennie, but she skilfully drew out both the strength and flaws of this conviction politician who she demonstrated was much more than just Nye Bevan’s wife. The other three actors were essentially playing the rest of the twentieth century, which they pulled off with great energy, and some astute direction from the company’s Artistic Director Marianne McNamara.

In his second season on the waterways Eddie Ahrens was amongst other a lot of other roles a charming Nye Bevan but got to the steel that helped him drive through the birth of our NHS. Debutant Mark Emmons excelled in a number of the cheekier roles, but captured the spirit of Jennie’s self-educated father that later inspired her to fight for the Open University. You’d never have known Georgina Liley was fresh out of drama school as she confidently rattled through a range of hats and accents, with her pin sharp Margaret Thatcher earning some lusty boos from the cheap seats.

Music is also central to the Mikron Experience, and composer Sonum Batra really pushed the four musicians on rousing numbers like Nae Pasaran and Bread and Roses, with stirring lyrics from Rodden.

Jennie Lee was a complex woman, which Rodden never shies away from, but there’s no doubt that this straight talking politician would have loved being the centre of attention in this warm hearted show that brings to life a remarkable Labour icon who had criminally been much forgotten.

Jennie Lee tours until 19th October 2024 and to book

Reviewer: Paul Clarke

Reviewed: 7th April 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.