Northern Stage had a big week in April. With their flagship production Red Ellen compressed dues to ongoing Covid woes, their press night was in the final (and only) full week of performance. At the same time, however, there was a notable play from Paines Plough running in stage 2. With Road splitting critical opinion but being a box office disappointment, they needed this week to be a good week. Let’s see how the two did.
This main stage play, co-produced with Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Lyceum Edinburgh, has been heavily postponed. It was originally meant to be done in 2020, but when that thing hit the play was put to the back of the queue, mainly because it was a large-scale play that would be vulnerable to further unexpected events. In retrospect, that was a wise decision to make. They didn’t quite emerge unscathed, as we saw from the positive cases meaning a late start to the play, but that was small fry compared to the various disasters we saw in the second half of 2021. It’s hard to compare audience turnout to Road when on a compressed timescale, but the performance I went to looked pretty good. It’s a shame so much is still hinging on when you schedule a play as opposed to what the play is, but on this vital decision: good call.
Red Ellen begins with Ellen Wilkinson (Bettrys Jones) at the Labour Party conference. A lot of things are different in the early 1930s. For one thing, everybody smokes and it’s rude not to accept the cigarette you’re offered (but don’t worry, you can always smoke the special cigarettes the doctors in the ads say clears your throat). In fact, the montage Wils Wilson creates of everybody lighting up without a second’s thought is a great opening. Another thing that different about the 1930s is that it passes unremarked that she’s the only woman of any standing there. Some things, however, are familiar. In her speech, she makes an impassioned plea to wake up to a regime in Europe re-arming itself and persecuting anyone not to their liking, whilst people in her own country and own party are deluding themselves into thinking the maniac in charge doesn’t really mean it. Yet again, a play accidentally draws parallels to a current event that was unheard of at the time of writing.
The publicity for this play heavily implied it was going to wax lyrical about Ellen Wilkinson, glorifying both her and every left-wing cause she allied herself with. However, the play itself is quite different. And, to be clear, I think that’s a good thing. One of the many battlefronts in the current culture wars is to idolise historical figures that best suit your causes, and I think that is a mistake. Most people realise now that in peace-time Winston Churchill was a far more controversial and divisive figure, but he is still revered for leading the UK through a war. You don’t need to teach the idolised version to remember the achievement that mattered. Similarly with Ellen Wilkinson, you can celebrate her achievements in paving the way for the Jarrow March, women in government and raising the school leaving age, but also look at her messier political relationships with fringe left-wing groups and – as most historians now seem to think – her messy personal relationships with political colleagues.
There are a lot of challenges to writing this biopic. Writer Caroline Bird said her first draft was an unfeasibly long blow-by-blow account of her political career before realising this had to be condensed. I’ve checked Ellen Wilkinson’s page and I completely agree – there’s no way you could fit everything in one play. One small but significant thing to be aware of is how different the pre-war political landscape is compared to today: this was the age of “National Government” where the Conservatives went into coalition with National Labour, whilst the rest of the Labour Party sat in opposition. The final challenge is that although Wilkinson’s career is well documented, not that much is known for certain about her personal life. Someone people might argue that you shouldn’t write a sexual relationship into a play that we don’t know actually happened, but I say as as long as you make it clear it’s a mixture of fact and speculation (which the programme does), I have no problem with this. After all, we are not writing a documentary, we are writing a play.
Surprisingly, gender politics doesn’t play that much of a role in the story – at least, not upfront. In the play, Ellen Wilkinson is respected by her peers and regarded as an equal. The more subtle question is where all the other women are. The answer, of course, is that they got married. At this point in history it was not unheard of for women to have important careers, but the expectation was that they quit work on marriage (or, at very latest, on the birth of their first child). Ellen Wilkinson, as we know, never married. However, in the 1930s being unmarried did not come without its price. The end of her political career might have been linked to being a woman, but not in a way anyone could have predicted. I’ll refrain from the end-of-play spoiler, but that was done well.
However, for all the efforts to make this a play about the person and not the political career, I felt we never quite got to know Red Ellen that way. One thing I liked about the play was the contrast between honourable political conviction and naivety. She was a passionate supporter of the Jews in Germany, but never quite seems to realise the problem with the welfare fund she supported actually funding the communists in Russia. She was also a supporter of the socialists in the Spanish Civil war, but (similar to a disillusioned George Orwell) learned the hard way that many of the men on her side weren’t exactly savoury characters themselves. But we didn’t really find out how that sat with her principles. In particular, how did she feel about the Soviet Union siding with the Nazis in 1939? Surely to Wilkinson this must have been the ultimate betrayal. We might not know how the real Red Ellen felt, but this is exactly the sort of thing when artistic license comes into play.
If there’s one thing that I think holds this play back, it’s that it never quite seems to decide what sort of biopic it wants to be. The publicity for this play suggested it was going to be 120 minutes of why everything Red Ellen did in her political life was awesome – but in theatre, idealised characters are rarely interesting characters. As you may have guessed, I much prefer going for warts and all. It’s all very well saying she was forever on the right side of history, but this is politics: no politician has ever been right all the time. So don’t be afraid to explore the times on the wrong side of history. If it’s good enough for Churchill, it’s good enough for her.
Red Ellen returns to the region on the 24th – 28th May at York Theatre Royal.
Sorry You’re Not a Winner
This play, I suspect, suffered a little from the knock-on effects of the slight delay to Red Ellen. In spite of Paines Plough being one of the most respected touring theatre companies in the country – not to mention the writer of this particular play being the winner of a major playwriting competition – it was never going to get much of the spotlight in the same week as ended up as press night for Red Ellen. There’s not much you can so about this, scheduling largely come down to luck, but had it run in a different week I think a lot more people would have seen it. Especially if the local reviewers shouted from the rooftops about this as much as I’m going to now.
Liam (Eddie-Joe Robinson) and Fletch (Kyle Joe) are a couple of lads on an unspecified sink estate arseing about one afternoon. They have been best friends since they met in infants school, and are still two peas in a pod. Or are they? For a start, Liam is clearly the sensible one of the two, constantly advising Fletch out of stupid things that would get him into trouble. That, however, is still an understatement. Whilst all Fletch wants to do is go out and get wrecked and shag birds, Liam tries to make something of his life. And – thanks the the efforts of a teacher who saw the potential of the only boy in the class who loved reading Of Mice and Men – Liam has secured a placed at Oxford University to read English. And today is last day.
There are two things that distinguish Samuel Bailey’s writing, as I learned from his Papatango-winning Shook. Firstly, he observed the golden rule that all masculine bravado is between 50% bullshit and 90% bullshit depending on the circumstances (Fletch is definitely nearer the 90 mark). Secondly – and this is what makes Bailey’s voice so distinct – he is wonderful at exploring the vulnerability behind the bravado with such compassion. We see it early on with Fletch. He might be shouting “My mates going to Oxford to fuck off you wanker!”, but underneath he is terrified of being left alone. One moment he’s coming up with a hare-brained scheme to come along to Oxford and make a living somehow. The next moment he is suggesting a contradictory even more hare-brained idea for Liam to not go to Oxford after all, as if proving you could have gone if you wanted this all you need Of course Liam’s not going to do that. And as for the first idea – well, Fletch has already seen to it that’s not going to happen either. Liam can’t protect Fletch from himself all the time.
A more rose-tinted version of this story would have Liam returning home after three years with an English Degree ready to enrich the lives of all those around him. But of course that’s not going to happen. Real life doesn’t work like that. People who came from sink estates don’t find better lives returning where they came from. And people who go to Oxford, be they from Eton or Easington, go on to London. And if a top-paying job isn’t enough to beckon Liam to the bright lights of the capital, perhaps the beautiful Georgia will. Regardless, Merton College Oxford and Liam’s home town may as well be different planets. Balls and drama are incomprehensible to people like Fletch, but Liam isn’t exactly open about where he came from. As it happens, Liam can never quite be one of them. But that’s a matter for later.
You’re not going to like me for saying this, for all its proclamations about being inclusive to all classes, theatre has a big snobbery problem. There are a sadly a lot of middle-class people who have exact ideas of what working-class people are supposed to be like, routinely use them as beating-sticks for whatever point they want to prove, and casually bandy around unpleasant stereotypes for actual poor people who don’t live up to their expectations. Samuel Bailey, on the other hand, gets it. He doesn’t need to spell out what you’re supposed to think, and instead shows it with simplicity. In this case, Fletch ticks every box of the wrong sort of poor person: he’s naturally unpleasant to people he doesn’t know, made no real effort at school, no interest in any sort of culture (other than the poem Liam wrote in Fletch’s Valentine’s card so he could nob the girl he fancied in year 11), basically everything that makes him the Daily Mail’s public enemy number 1. But even though he’s all of these things, you just look at his life and his lot and think: he doesn’t deserve this. What chance did he have in life?
Jesse Jones’s directing is superb. I have actually seen his work before: the surprisingly good Wardrobe Ensemble’s 1972: The Future of Sex, and it seems that the bold and brilliant idea that went inot that play have carried over here. I don’t know how much of the visual elements are Samuel Bailey’s ideas and which are Jesse Jones’s ideas, but you really need to know what you’re doing to pull off this vision. Some devices are quite conventional, such as the sharp visual contrast between the hoodies in scene 1 and to ball dress in scene 2. A bolder move is Liam and Fletch leaping about everywhere in the first and last scene, which could so easily have looked daft but suited the play all along. And then, of course, there are the doors, either opening wide or slamming shut in your face for the obvious metaphorical reason. Even the ending of the play – something that I would normally decry as the writing sin of a coincidence to solve problems – is done in a clever way to make it original.
I could carry on writing about all the good bits of the play, but I would end up writing the entire plot. My only regret is that this play only run to three venues, with Northern Stage being the last one. I generally hate the uses of phrases such as “important” and “everyone should see this” because they are almost entirely used for plays that validate the views their intended audience already hold. This one, however, I actually think has the power to change minds for the better. If other writers are terrified of a warts and all portrayal undermining their message, take a look at this one to see how powerful it can be.