Theatre reviews: Red Ellen | The Bookies | Absolute Bowlocks

Based on the life of Labour politician Ellen Wilkinson, Red Ellen is a frantic whirlwind of a show which would have benefited from a little more stillness and eloquence, writes Joyce McMillan

Red Ellen, L-R: Laura Evelyn, Kevin Lennon, Bettrys Jones and Sandy Batchelor PIC: Pamela Raith

Red Ellen, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh ***

The Bookies, Dundee Rep ****

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Absolute Bowlocks, Oran Mor, Glasgow ***

When the Labour cabinet minister Ellen Wilkinson died in 1947 – felled at 55 by a combination of lifelong bronchial asthma, the barbiturates she took to treat it, pneumonia and exhaustion – rumours soon began to circulate that she had taken her own life. The chances that she did so deliberately must, in truth, be close to zero. Dedicated since her Manchester childhood to fighting tirelessly for social justice, Wilkinson would never willingly have laid down arms; and as a lifelong feminist, she would also have scorned the narrative which turns all unmarried women into tragic suicidal cases.

Nearer the mark, though, was the criticism that she exhausted herself by always trying to fight on too many fronts at once; and it’s this image of Ellen as a woman in a frantic hurry, dashing from pillar to post, from her constituency in Jarrow to Spain to Berlin, that seems to inform the fragmented structure of Caroline Bird’s play, which pursues a roughly chronological line from the early 1930s to Wilkinson’s death, but avoids settling on any theme or issue for long enough to achieve any real dramatic momentum or depth.

The themes themselves are both vital and full of contemporary resonances, ranging from the position of women in politics to the danger of infighting on the left in a time of resurgent fascism. Instead of exploring them, though, Wilson’s fine seven-strong company are always rushing along to the next comic-strip scene, a few drawn in brief but powerful emotional detail, others caricatured to the point of embarrassment. At the centre of this whirlwind, Bettrys Jones delivers an intense and touching performance as Ellen Wilkinson, without ever quite having time to capture the woman’s full glamour and grandeur; in a play that would have benefited from a clearer focus on the serious passion for a better world at the heart of her politics, and from a little more stillness and eloquence, in contemplating why that passion still matters.

If Red Ellen often baffles with its switches of tone, Dundee Rep’s new show The Bookies belongs squarely in the tradition of pitch-black farce. Set in a Leith Walk betting shop threatened with closure, this new comedy by Mikey Burnett and Joe McCann features four characters on a collision course, ranging from brutal motor-mouthed shop manager Patrick, through company boss Michelle and young cashier John, to desperate customer Harry, addicted to the shop’s flashing slot-machines.

In Sally Reid’s fast and witty production, their increasingly frantic interactions are played out in pitch-perfect ensemble style by Ewan Donald, Irene Macdougall, Benjamin Osugo and Barrie Hunter; and if ugly themes of greed, desperation and incipient racism are the main drivers of the plot, Burnett and McCann succeed in sustaining them with a boldness and wit that is oddly exhilarating, right to the spectacularly bloody end.

At Oran Mor, meanwhile, comedian Graeme Rooney’s debut show also revels in the art of farce, firing off a brief lunchtime comedy about a stuffy north-east of Scotland bowling club that treats ladies’ champion Ailsa so badly that she resolves to disguise herself as a bloke, and demonstrate that she can bowl better than all the men.

Cue a veritable whirlwind of ludicrous disguise-shifting and brutal locker-slamming, often at the expense of devoted club assistant Walter, played with great dexterity by James Watterson. Add a tireless Leah Byrne as the desperate Ailsa, Rooney himself as the pompous club President, and a few other dodgy but serviceable comic stereotypes, and you have a rollicking 45 minutes of traditional comedy, all deftly directed by Becky Hope Palmer. Subtle it is not; but it makes its basic feminist point with energy, and some real theatrical skill.

Red Ellen and The Bookies both run until 21 May. Absolute Bowlocks is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 7 May, and the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, from 10-14 May