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Red Ellen at Nottingham Playhouse and tour – review

Caroline Bird's biographical drama runs until 30 April

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The cast of Red Ellen
© Pamela Raith

Why not start with a political question that will guarantee a plethora of varied and often passionate answers, even from the most committed apolitical human. There is no absolute answer and, whatever opinions people have, they will usually raise some form of argument and maybe even some humour. The broad question is: Why do individuals pursue politics as a career?

Given our current state of affairs politically, this question might cause a bellyful of derisive laughter or serious scorn about craven elites in political power who are self-regarding, uncaring, unprincipled liars whose behaviours, actions and untrustworthy words reveal remarkable levels of distrust amongst the public. Whether one labours under this undesirable interpretation or is conservative or even liberal in one's own approach; preferring to trust in long-held beliefs about the nature of working in politics as a way to realise good outcomes for society's problems, it is an age-old debate.

Now imagine things from a woman's point of view and, in her male-dominated time in life and politics, she is deeply passionate about social change and caught between revolutionary and parliamentary politics. Then throw in a devastating world war and a personal illness that proves fatal. Imagine her story. Imagine that story taken from the stage of real ‘hard knocks' working-class life and placed on a theatre stage for all to examine when the personal papers of her life have all been burned. Imagine that.

The writer Caroline Bird has indeed imagined just that with the story of Red Ellen in her inspiring and remarkable new play about the Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson who was forever on the wrong side of life but never gave up until an accidental overdose of a concoction of pills caused her untimely death. That surely is the stuff of politically inspired theatre.

Red Ellen's theatricalised journey on the Nottingham Playhouse stage proves a deeply compelling, often humorous and very moving story. Revelatory even. Bird says that the poet Selima Hill once said "autobiography is not true enough, in order to be ruthlessly accurate, it is sometimes necessary to fictionalise". So, after six years of writing, editing and creative development, Bird's multifaceted version of Wilkinson's astonishing life is striding the stage and pushing herself to the limits in the powerhouse form of actor Bettrys Jones who plays Red Ellen.

Jones is on the stage for virtually all of the two plus hours of performance time and never lets up. This is one outstanding and very believable performance and Jones makes you deeply care about a woman whose name and amazing life story is unknown to many. It may never have been properly known to present day theatregoers except for Bird's brilliant sleuth-like talent.

New plays often get consigned to smaller, less risky studio spaces – not the main stage. Nottingham Playhouse's artistic director Adam Penford said that the main stage is the only place that Red Ellen could be properly realised and was right to do so. In the ballot box of play programme positioning, this large vote of trust has worked. It's a highly theatrical story and needs to be told big and director Wils Wilson doesn't hide her vision behind the back benches but brings Red Ellen out, fist held high with manifestos a-blazing!

It's a small cast with some fine acting from Mercedes Assad (MrAnsley/Einstein), Sandy Batchelor (Otto), Laura Evelyn (Isabel), Helen Katamba (Annie), Jim Kitson (David) and Kevin Lennon (Herbert). The cast also play a multitude of other roles including Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, fellow and opposition political party members and Jarrow Marchers. The style of presentation is such that everything on stage is in a state of transitional flux with some huge events like the World War Two London bombings and The Spanish Civil War blending in with more personal insights including Wilkinson's relationships with married men and her impassioned fights for social justice.

Wilkinson lived from 1891 to 1947. She entered politics in 1907 at the age of 16 when she joined the Independent Labour Party. Amongst other great achievements she helped to organise the Suffrage Pilgrimage where 500,000 women across the country marched to a rally in Hyde Park. In 1936, 200 unemployed men formed the Jarrow March on foot to London with Wilkinson joining in at various points in the hard and long journey. She exposed the Labour Party's initial disinterest in the plight of the Jewish people during the rise of the German Nazi Party and so much more. Her life was one of great passions and causes often to the detriment of her own frail health. The reason this woman went into politics was not self-serving but in the service of others and the play Red Ellen serves as a great reminder of a great human being. Go and experience her story. It will blow you away, without question, whatever your politics.