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Red Ellen, the story of Labour politician Ellen Wilkinson, to open at Nottingham Playhouse



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The remarkable story of a revolutionary Labour MP, who fought with reckless energy for a better world, is told in a new play at Nottingham Playhouse.

Written by Caroline Bird, Red Ellen, the story of Ellen Wilkinson, will run at the Playhouse from tomorrow (Wednesday) until Saturday, April 30.

A working class woman in a man’s world, Ellen Wilkinson campaigned tirelessly 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.

Red Ellen at Nottingham Playhouse (55983700)
Red Ellen at Nottingham Playhouse (55983700)

She was the only female minister in Attlee’s government, and served as a vital member of 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.

Running, often quite literally, into the likes of Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway, she had affairs with communist spies and government ministers.

But, despite all of this, she still found herself, somehow, on the outside looking in.

Red Ellen is written by multi award-winning poet and playwright Caroline Bird.

She said: “Ellen was a complex person by anyone’s standards and she never stopped, but despite her herculean efforts, she is 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... and we also need to look after them, and support them. She failed at so many things, and yet she was a total, stonking, miraculous, life-affirming, bloody wonderful triumph. A bright and particular star. I hope that some of Ellen’s light can still reach us all the way down here, and that this play might reignite a spark or two.”

Bettrys Jones will play Ellen Wilkinson.

The rest of the cast are Helen Katamba (Annie Wilkinson) Laura Evelyn (Isabel Brown) Sandy Batchelor (Otto Katz) Kevin Lennon (Herbert Morrison) Mercedes Assad (Mr Ansley) and Jim Kitson (David).

Director Wils Wilson said: “I am excited to be telling Ellen’s story ­— she had an incredible life and achieved so much, against the odds.

“Her story deserves to be known far and wide and 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.”

A new play from multi award-winning poet and playwright Caroline Bird, Red Ellen tells the remarkable story of Ellen Wilkinson, the revolutionary Labour MP who fought with an unstoppable, reckless energy for a better world.

A working class woman in a man’s world, Ellen Wilkinson campaigned tirelessly 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 female minister in Attlee’s government, and served as a vital member of 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. Running (often quite literally) into the likes of Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway, she had affairs with communist spies and government ministers. But, despite all of this, she still found herself - somehow - on the outside looking in.

Caroline Bird says,

“Ellen was a complex person by anyone’s standards and she never stopped, but despite her herculean efforts, she is largely forgotten by history. The irony, of course, about ‘forgotten women of history’ is invariably the facts of their lives turn out to be acutely memorable: they’re not forgotten because they’re forgettable. 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... and we also need to look after them, and support them. She failed at so many things, and yet she was a total, stonking, miraculous, life-affirming, bloody wonderful triumph. A bright and particular star. I hope that some of Ellen’s light can still reach us all the way down here, and that this play might reignite a spark or two.”

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

Director Wils Wilson, whose last production was the critically acclaimed Life is a Dream at The Lyceum, says, “I am excited to be telling Ellen’s story - she had an incredible life and achieved so much, against the odds. Her story deserves to be known far and wide and 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 is by Linbury Prize-winning designer Camilla Clarke who has worked with the Royal Court, Gate Theatre, Leeds Playhouse, Soho Theatre, The Unicorn Theatre and the Royal Lyceum Theatre. Music and sound design is by Jasmin Kent Rodgman whose music and live productions have been performed across the UK and internationally with partners including London Fashion Week, World Music Festival Shanghai, Edinburgh International Festival, Wilderness Festival, Roundhouse, Shoreditch Town Hall, Barbican, Oxford Playhouse and the Royal Albert Hall. 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 (The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other/Royal Lyceum Theatre). Movement direction is by Patricia Suarez (Orpheus in the Record Shop/Leeds Playhouse and BBC), and intimacy director is Vanessa Coffey. Bex Bowsher is RTYDS Resident Assistant Director on the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme.

Red Ellen will be published by Nick Hern Books on 31 March 2022, and was shortlisted for the 2021 George Devine Award, recognising new writing and powerful voices.

Caroline says, “What’s made me sad and reflective in terms of writing the play, is just how pertinent it is today. There’s a feeling that Ellen spent her whole life walking, marching down a moving walkway that was going in the opposite direction. She had the wind in her face. Sometimes she was having to fight just to stay still. And sometimes it feels like that now. We have to fight to keep what we’ve got before we can even move further along. And there was so much further to go on this march, so much further to go.

“And the left is divided. That’s the other thing that Ellen really fought for. She wanted unity. She was like, if we’re going to embody any kind of energy we need to have a team rather than factions. And she was right that squabbling on the left does strengthen the right. And so many of the speeches and the questions and the trouble that she was trying to illuminate are exactly the same now.”

Red Ellen is a Northern Stage, Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh co- production and will tour to Nottingham (13-30 April), Edinburgh (4-21 May), and York (24-28 May) after its Newcastle premiere (25 March - 9 April).

For more information or to book tickets visit nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk

Notes to editors

• Cast and creative team biographies are available here.

Cast

Ellen Bettrys Jones

Annie / as cast Helen Katamba

David / as cast Jim Kitson

Isabel / as cast Laura Evelyn

Otto / as cast Sandy Batchelor

Herbert / as cast Kevin Lennon

Mr Ansley / as cast Mercedes Assad

Creatives

Director Wils Wilson

Writer Caroline Bird

Set & Costume Design Camilla Clarke

Music & Sound Designer Jasmin Kent Rodgman

Lighting Design Kai Fischer

Movement Director Patricia Suarez

Intimacy Director Vanessa Coffey

Wardrobe Supervisor Naomi Daley

Assistant Director (RTYDS) Bex Bowsher

Production/Stage Management

Production Manager Marty Moore

Stage Manager Alec Reece

Deputy Stage Manager Nichola Reilly

Assistant Stage Manager Grace Branch

Dresser Laura Jane Aitman

Nottingham Playhouse is dedicated to making bold and thrilling theatre in the heart of Nottingham. The theatre is a central part of cultural life in the city and is driven by a belief that theatre should be accessible to everyone. Its rich programme of work in its theatre and its Neville Studio, which sits alongside its ambitious and inclusive outreach and community work, has earned it the reputation of being one of the leading regional theatres in the

UK. nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk

Northern Stage is more than a night out. We go beyond the ordinary to bring people together to share stories through live experiences. We are a place to laugh, discover, challenge and learn - a place to think and rethink. We believe in the power of stories to help us understand the world around us, imagine alternatives, and create new narratives. We are custodians of the resources entrusted to us, and work with generosity, care and collaboration to ensure they reach as many people across our community as possible. northernstage.co.uk

The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh is the leading producing theatre in Scotland and one of the United Kingdom!s most prolific theatre companies. Our beautiful, intimate Victorian theatre was built in 1883 and has played a significant role in the cultural and creative life of the city for over 130 years. The Lyceum company develops award winning innovative, theatre, drawing upon the considerable talent in Scotland alongside partners across the globe, to make theatre in Edinburgh, that can speak to the world. www.lyceum.org.uk

Contact

For interviews, images or to RSVP for press night on 13 April contact David Burns – david@davidburnspr.com / 07789 754089

Listings information and tour dates

RED ELLEN

This remarkable new play from Caroline Bird tells the inspiring and epic story of Ellen Wilkinson, Labour MP, who was forever on the right side of history, forever on the wrong side of life.

25 March - 9 April, Northern Stage, Newcastle

0191 230 5151 / www.northernstage.co.uk

13-30 April, Nottingham Playhouse

0115 941 9419 / www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk

4-21 May, The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh

0131 248 4848 / www.lyceum.org.uk

24-28 May, York Theatre Royal

www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

Logo, company name

Description automatically generated UNISON East Midlands sponsors Red Ellen at Nottingham Playhouse

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