Red Ellen and Sorry You’re Not a Winner

Skip to: Red Ellen, Sorry You’re Not a Winner

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.

Red Ellen

Chain-smoking party conference table

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.

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Harriet Martineau mounts the air

harriet

JUMP TO: Broken Biscuits

Shelagh Stephenson’s new play Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing could have been preachy, but instead forms an intelligent insight into the attitudes of early Victorian Britain.

Live Theatre has had a busy end to 2016, with three productions in three months. Amongst them, I had high hopes for a new play by Shelagh Stephenson. She is best known for The Memory of Water, which is a fantastic play (don’t watch the film adaptation, see the vastly superior stage version). This one, however, is the second of a Tyneside-based trilogy, a more fact-based drama with a stronger local connection, directed by jointly by her and Live’s artistic director Max Roberts. Harriet Martineau, regarded by many as the first female sociologist – and regarded by some as the first feminist – stayed in a Tynemouth boarding house for five years, unable to leave because of an illness. But was she really unable to leave?

With identity politics all the rage over large swathes of the arts right now, I did have a slight worry this play might reappropriate a historical story to put shoehorned parallels with modern political narratives first and accuracy a long way second. But instead this play takes a very different route. It does not lecture on morals, rather it explores how different attitudes were in 1848 to the issues Harriet championed. Today, it goes without saying that slavery is bad and votes for women are good. In this play, however, one issue is met with broad ambivalence and the other is a fanciful notion barely anyone given thought to. There are bizarre social expectations such as eccentric Impie, formerly looked down on as a spinster; after a ten-day abortive marriage ended with her useless husband’s death by falling pig (no, really), she’s suddenly elevated to the far more respectable status of widow. Continue reading