Director Wils Wilson casts a number of tall actors in Caroline Bird’s play, but one performer towers above them. Like her character, headstrong, passionate and driven, Bettrys Jones is the gravitational force around which all else revolves. This, despite being the shortest on stage.
Playing Ellen Wilkinson, the “thumb-sized” Manchester-born MP who rose from prewar activism to postwar minister of education, Jones is a theatrical life force. The centre of attention throughout a three-hour production, she is rooted and calm, commanding without grandstanding. She captures the enthusiasm and contradictions of a politician who, as Bird presents her, put the fight against injustice ahead of friends, lovers and her own wellbeing.
It’s quite a story and, as Bird notes in the programme, only one of many possible versions: “there are so many Ellens to choose from”. The one she opts for is a woman who trades an outsider’s ideological purity for the compromises of power. We meet her as the thorn in the side of a complacent Labour party, angry at its indifference to Hitler’s rise, and we leave her not long after she has introduced free school milk and raised the school leaving age to 15.
It was Wilkinson who led the Jarrow march, who ventured to Europe to report on the Spanish civil war and who was christened the “shelter queen” during London’s Blitz. She dallied with communism, had second thoughts about pacificism and was accused of selling out once she had power in her grasp. “How do I fight fascism without sacrificing any of my principles?” she says in exasperation.
In this way, the play becomes not just a tribute to a pioneering woman, independent and sexually liberated, but also an analysis of the left’s fraught struggle for equality. Red Ellen crackles with modern day resonances, from Starmer’s Labour party to Putin’s war in Ukraine, via the Tory assault on society’s poorest. The Wilkinson we see here can never do enough, her political anger fuelling a lifelong battle to see that right be done.
As the pieces of Camilla Clarke’s set fall into disarray and the faces of comrades and adversaries fade from view, the play is as much wistful as agitational, but no less inspirational for that.