Thursday, October 6

Red Ellen – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The author (Caroline Bird) admitted that ‘this play is one interpretation… there are so many Ellens to choose from’ and in this respect the show lost pace and momentum towards the end, lingering too long on Ellen’s disappointments, professional and personal, as she stumbled, a rattling, over-worked medicine cabinet, towards death; the air of exhaustion at the conclusion of the Second World War was captured well by the blazing row between Ellen (Bettrys Jones) and Herbert Morrison (Kevin Lennon), both true and tragic, but overlooked were her incredible feats and achievements as one of less than a handful of women involved in the government and politics of the era. Scant attention was paid to her involvement with the Women’s Suffrage organisation, hardly mentioned was her first position as MP for Middlesbrough East and, yes, the Jarrow March was deemed – at the time – a ‘failure’ but it contributed much to the national consciousness that led to some of the post-war reforms aimed at curbing poverty and improving education. Not to mention the NHS. She was also one of only eight women present at the foundation on the United Nations in April 1945.

It was a sparky, at times funny, script but while several laughs were prompted by references to Ellen’s diminutive stature (it’s rumoured the benches in place to accommodate men were so high that she had to rest her feet on a briefcase), little was mentioned of the adverse conditions that greeted a woman in the House of Commons. Denied proper toilet facilities they were additionally not welcome in bars, smoking rooms or members cloakrooms. It would have been great – and dramatic – to show Ellen striding about these ‘forbidden’ areas. The play did cover her visit to Spain during its civil war but this scene was more focussed on the drunken antics of Ernest Hemingway.

Photo: Pamela Raith

Setting aside the grumbles concerning the missing episodes of Ellen’s life, the acting was completely convincing, the set appropriately drab and austere and the costumes excellent (Camilla Clarke), epitomised by the tableau of Jarrow marchers at the end of the first act. Notable too were the representations of the Blitz of wartime 40’s with a cleverly lit stage (Kai Fischer) with the subtle addition of some smoke.

The ungoverned progress of the story was tricky to follow in the first act, although accurately embodied Ellen’s supercharged passion and commitment. Her life was full of contradictions, no more so than when she accepted the need for munitions jobs in her employment-starved area of the country conflicting with her stance as a peace activist in the early years of WW2. At the same time her attitude towards domestic events (her father’s death) appeared callous but was in keeping with a driven personality more concerned with righting the world’s wrongs. This play had such resonance with events today (with many frustrated by the lack of a coherent political challenge from the Left) that it’s a pity one didn’t leave feeling more optimistic. It illustrated the huge personal cost to Ellen but didn’t quite capture the significance of the achievements of this incredible woman.

Playing until 21st May 2022, https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/red-ellen

Reviewer: Roger Jacobs

Reviewed: 4th May 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★

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