Play Review – Red Ellen

A new play about British socialist in the pre- and post-war years has clear parallels with today’s discussions.


A UK Labour party avoiding association with street protests lest it undermine their electoral chances, timid in the face of a rise in Fascism but labelling anti-fascists as extremists, paranoid about infiltration and chiding a genuinely socialist candidate for being too radical? The current state of the parliamentary left in 2022? No, the year is 1933 and all this is laid out in the first ten minutes in a brilliant new play called Red Ellen which opened at Northern Stage in Newcastle earlier this month and tours till late May to Nottingham Playhouse, Edinburgh Lyceum and York Theatre Royal.

The titular character is Ellen Wilkinson for whom this was just one nickname, The Mighty Atom, The Fiery Particle, Elfin Fury being others. All four characteristics of diminutive size, red hair, dynamic energy and authentic commitment to socialism are captured and superbly portrayed by actress Bettrys Jones in the last 14 years of Ellen’s admirable, astonishing and tumultuous life.

The parallels with today’s Labour party are clear as a bell. Ellen believes the left is a spectrum, broader than just the “broad church that some would say, extending beyond parliamentary confines into the streets and workplaces. Those with more party status, such as Herbert Morrison (played with nuanced precision by Kevin Lennon) believe in irreconcilable rival camps that threaten each others existence and certainly should never work in tandem, even against Nazism. Ellen is grassroots to the core but also an avid internationalist telling Morrison Our first constituency is the world, as contradictory as it may be.

All the major characters in the play were real people and include Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill. Aside from these big names, some of the most compelling exchanges take place between Ellen and probably lesser known real-life figures such as Otto Katz (a Czech Jew) and Isabel Brown (a Geordie Brit) both Communists. Ellen was also a Communist for a time, and a co-founder of the British Communist Party.

The dialogue here, as well as between Ellen, her sister Anne and Morrison, is needle sharp and entertainingly articulate. When Ellen pleads that “Labour isn’t the ruling classes.”, Isabel counters “Then they should stop acting like it”.

That Red Ellen opened in Newcastle is appropriate given one of her best known actions was organising the 1936 march from Jarrow (just down the Tyne) to 10 Downing Street in an attempt to illustrate the dire straits of her constituency’s 80% unemployment.

In co-ordinating the march Ellen is beset on the one hand by more of Morrison’s caution: “Hunger marches are associated with Communism” and on the other by Isabel’s wish to “drum up necessary revolutionary zeal” and her Stalin banners.

Although Ellen sincerely hopes and believes that the march will convince the government to change course, Isabel’s outlook on the possibility of prime ministerial compassion was proven right by history: “The problem isn’t that they don’t understand pet, it’s that they do understand, they just don’t care.”

As the action moves to Spain in 1937, the consequences of a divided left are shown to be darker than before. Grim infighting and summary executions show how doctrinaire the charming Otto and astute Isabel have become. Ellen estranges herself from the CP and throws in her lot more fully with Labour.

But the compromises become more apparent. Given responsibility for air-raid shelters in Churchill’s war cabinet, she is met with hostility by bombed out citizens who see her as responsible for the government’s inadequate provision. Later she laments to Isabel that she has made herself even smaller by “curtseying to the Queen”.

True to real events, the play does not just chronoligise facts. It is also a visually captivating piece of emotionally engaging theatre covering subjects like the difficulties for women in politics and family conflict about the care of an ailing parent.

This is the story of one woman’s tireless dedication but it also asks urgent questions of what we should expect from the left. It is simply a superb piece of writing by Caroline Bird, vividly directed by Wils Wilson and if you get a chance to see it between now and the end of May, do. Watch out for retours and revivals too.

Remaining dates in April and May for Nottingham and Edinburgh are here and the current tour ends at York Theatre Royal from 24th May – 28th May 2022.

Carol McGuigan is a socialist who stopped her subscription to the UK Labour Party this month, more about that later. She lives and works in Berlin.