REVIEW: Red Ellen York Theatre Royal

Bettrys Evan as Ellen Wilkinson addressing a Labour Party rally in a scene from Red Ellen 

Bettrys Jones as Ellen Wilkinson addressing a Labour Party rally in a scene from Red Ellen - Credit: Pamela Raith

No matter your politics, the gutsy story of 'Red Ellen' Wilkinson has much to say about a remarkable life lived and a legacy that rings true today. 

Fiery Ellen with her diminutive stature, red hair and political fire was a maverick as a politician and a woman as she clawed her way to recognition in the 1920s and 30s at  time when the glass ceiling hadn't even been invented - in fact it was almost audacious to think that a  working class woman such as she could become a government minister. 

Firebrand Ellen Wilkinson a force to be reckoned with

Firebrand Ellen Wilkinson a force to be reckoned with - played by Bettrys Jones in this Northern Stage production directed by Wils Wilson - Credit: Pamela Raith

But what a force she became - elected as an MP for Middlesbrough East and then as MP for Jarrow where she was moved by the plight of the unemployed to organise the Jarrow Crusade.

In this play by Caroline Bird, as Bettrys Jones brings all Ellen's fire power to the stage highlighting her passion, impetuosity - and frustration at the barriers put in her way by her sex. She's always having to work twice as hard and be twice as good as the men that surround her. Heard that before?

Ellen had a dramatic love life as well as a political one 

Ellen had a dramatic love life as well as a political one - Credit: Pamela Raith

The story links Ellen's public persona with her family struggles, lively love life, political acceptance and the health issues that plagued her throughout - she had chronic asthma and died of the condition at  just 55.

Her story takes us from the Jarrow March - 'through Ripon, Harrogate, Sheffield' - to wartime bomb shelters, to the Spanish Civil War - and encounters with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill. 

A sparing set changes often, echoing Ellen's frenzied, non-stop pace of life and the cast participates with set movements and costume changes on stage so there's much to take in, a lively pace as well as wit and wisdom and in the writing  

You come to understand Red Ellen and her legacy - as education minister she brought in school milk and free school meals for children, recognising a link between nutrition and learning - and she raised the school leaving age to 15. 

Ellen's is a story of struggle, might and triumph, it's a story worth telling now as much as ever. 

See Red Ellen at York Theatre Royal until May 28.