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Preview: Red Ellen at Nottingham Playhouse

4 April 22 words: Thi Cordell
photos: Pamela Raith

Ahead of her new play Red Ellen launching at Nottingham Playhouse from Wednesday 13 - Saturday 30 April, we hear from the award-winning poet and playwright behind the production, Caroline Bird and Director Wils Wilson. Red Ellen celebrates the revolutionary Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, who was forever on the right side of history, and on the wrong side of life… 

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 to deliver a petition to reduce unemployment and poverty. Leading as the only female minister in Attlee’s government, and serving in the wartime coalition Government as a member of Churchill's cabinet, she was tasked with running air raid shelters and civil defence. Further afield, she campaigned for Britain to aid the fight against 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 these Herculean efforts, she still found herself - somehow - on the outside looking in.

The valiant endeavours of Ellen Wilkinson are, for the most part, forgotten by history. Although she continues to live in the mind of Caroline Bird and has done for the last six years. Caroline tells us more about the impacts of writing this play, saying “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 continues “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.” 

Critically acclaimed Director Wils Wilson, says that Wilkinson’s story “deserves to be known far and wide” and he says he’s “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.” 

There’s a feeling that Ellen spent her whole life walking, marching down a moving walkway that was going in the opposite direction

Caroline reflects on the play’s suitability of today “There’s a feeling that Ellen spent her whole life walking, marching down a moving walkway that was going in the opposite direction. 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.”

The play features set and costume design by Lisburn 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 has been performed across the UK and internationally. We’ll see The Felling Male Voice Choir perform the Jarrow March song, lighting design by Kai Fischer (The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other), movement direction by Patricia Suarez (Orpheus in the Record Shop), and intimacy director is Vanessa Coffey. Bex Bowsher is RTYDS Resident Assistant Director on the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme.

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). The book 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. 

For more information or to book tickets visit the Nottingham Playhouse Website


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