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Play about “revolutionary” MP in Nottingham

Published: 6 April 2022
Reporter: Steve Orme

Bettrys Jones as Ellen Wilkinson Credit: Pamela Raith

A new play by Caroline Bird which tells the story of Ellen Wilkinson, the “revolutionary Labour MP who fought with an unstoppable, reckless energy for a better world”, is to have a two-week run at Nottingham Playhouse.

Red Ellen features “a working-class woman in a man’s world” who campaigned for social change, bringing in free school meals and leading the Jarrow march from the north east to London through York, Nottingham and the Midlands to deliver a petition to reduce unemployment and poverty.

She was the only woman minister in Attlee’s government and served in Churchill's cabinet, taking sole charge of air raid shelters during the war.

Further afield, she campaigned for Britain to aid the fight against Franco’s fascists in Spain, battled to save Jewish refugees in Nazi Germany and published some of the first anti-fascist literature in the UK.

Caroline Bird said, “Ellen was a complex person by anyone’s standards but despite her herculean efforts she’s largely forgotten by history.

“I’ve been living with Ellen Wilkinson in my head for about six years now and I can honestly say, after writing this play, Ellen has done the impossible: she has given me back a glimmer of faith in politics.

“We need politicians like Ellen. She failed at so many things and yet she was a total, stonking, miraculous, life-affirming, bloody wonderful triumph.”

Bettrys Jones will play Ellen Wilkinson. The rest of the cast features Helen Katamba who plays Ellen’s sister, Annie Wilkinson, Laura Evelyn as British Communist activist Isabel Brown, Sandy Batchelor as Czech agent Otto Katz, Kevin Lennon as Labour politician and leader of London County Council Herbert Morrison, Mercedes Assad as Mr Ansley, a representative of the Jarrow Labour Exchange, and Jim Kitson as Jarrow resident David.

Director Wils Wilson commented, “I’m excited to be telling Ellen’s story. She had an incredible life and achieved so much against the odds. I’m very happy to be part of bringing her to a wider public.

“I’m also very excited to work on Caroline’s brilliant script—it’s full of life, compassion and humour. Ellen’s life was a whirl of action and passion and the play takes the audience on quite a ride.”

Set and costume design are by Camilla Clarke, with music and sound design by Jasmin Kent Rodgman. The Felling Male Voice Choir will perform the Jarrow March song written by Jasmin Kent Rodgman with lyrics by Caroline Bird.

Lighting design is by Kai Fischer, movement is by Patricia Suarez and intimacy director is Vanessa Coffey. Bex Bowsher is assistant director.

Red Ellen is a Northern Stage, Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh co- production. It will be at Nottingham Playhouse from Wednesday 13 until Saturday 30 April, the Royal Lyceum from Wednesday 4 until Saturday 21 May and York Theatre Royal from Tuesday 24 until Saturday 28 May.

    Related listings

  • Red Ellen - Caroline Bird (Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company and Northern Stage)