First published in The Times, Thursday April 7 2022
Ellen Wilkinson — one of the first female members of parliament — may not have the name recognition of some of her male counterparts, but her life and political career were no less eventful. As the Labour MP for Middlesbrough East from 1924-31, then Jarrow in Tyne and Wear between 1935-47, she organised and participated in the most famous of the “hunger marches” of the 1930s. She rubbed shoulders with Ernest Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War, and later served as a minister in Churchill’s wartime coalition and in the postwar Attlee government.
While Caroline Bird’s sweeping biographical play takes its title from the nickname that clung to Wilkinson throughout her career, it also calls attention to the dilemma she faced, between sticking rigidly to her socialist principles and compromising for the sake of her career and electoral prospects. Wilkinson was famously diminutive (the Daily Worker called her “thumb-sized”) but what she lacked in stature she made up for in charisma and fiery rhetoric — qualities that are captured in Wils Wilson’s ambitious production in an unflagging performance by Bettrys Jones as the politician.
When we meet Wilkinson, she is sharing a platform with Herbert Morrison (a fine, nuanced turn from Kevin Lennon), whom she outshines, both for her clarity of oration and the uncompromising nature of her vision. Although the pair rose through the ranks of the Labour Party together (in Bird’s version their relationship spills over into an affair in the depths of the Second World War), Wilkinson’s achievement is — inevitably — harder fought, her public image ridiculed, the rewards less illustrious.
Bird creates a trenchant portrait of her subject, charting the rocky trajectory of a woman whose motto of “showing up is not enough” was sincere, but who vacillated in her preferred revolutionary vehicle between Labour and the Communist Party of Great Britain (of which she was a founder member), before participating in a wartime government whose actions appeared to overlook the very people she sought to represent. So, while Wilkinson is clearly a figure to be admired, the play doesn’t gloss over her inconsistencies, her occasional delusions of grandeur or her loneliness and desire for intimacy.
These intricacies make for involving drama, and while Wilson’s production runs to three hours of compressed history — covering many turbulent events of the mid-20th century — the show doesn’t feel overstuffed. Shifts between scenes are fluently choreographed, making efficient use of Camilla Clarke’s flexible set design, while the director and ensemble make light work of the period transitions. The pace sags a little in the second half, but the production never meanders, and Jones sustains our sympathy for Wilkinson — flaws and all.
To April 9, then touring to May 28, northernstage.co.uk