North East Post
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
3:00 AM 19th April 2024

Bread And Roses: Jennie Lee At Bingley Little Theatre

Image by Anthony Robling
Image by Anthony Robling
Lindsay Rodden’s vibrantly entertaining and biographically literate reading of the life of Jennie Lee once again gives notice of Mikron Theatre Company’s commitment to voicing the voiceless - especially women. If the socialist firebrand and daughter of a Scots miner has been consigned to the historical margins it might be because she languishes in the shadow of her husband, Aneurin Bevan. Which is to overlook the immense contribution Jennie Lee (“with an ‘ie’, not a ‘y’”) made to British political life over many decades of service, as an MP against all the odds, and later as the architect of the Open University.

And in Lauren Robinson’s nuanced performance as Jennie we infer the drama within the drama, of the eight-year-old girl from Cowdenbeath, obsessed by the theatre up the road, who spends the rest of her life ‘performing’ in behalf of the disenfranchised, the hungry and the weak. Her actuation of the role demands focus, and given the limitations of Mikron’s cast numbers - necessitating the doubling and trebling of roles by the three other actors - it is well that Robinson’s remit is more or less exclusively devoted to Jennie. Moving seamlessly through the many stages of Lee’s life, Robinson is pitch perfect, not least in the nailing of accent, and the rendering of subtle changes in tone that punctuate Lee’s journey from working class Scotland, to parliament, to the Spanish Civil War, to marriage, to loss, and finally into the shadows of a movingly portrayed senility.

Mikron invest much with little; the single set of a theatre façade becomes the point around which the action unfolds apace. Using Lee’s early fascination for the stage as a dramatic conceit, the performance itself is theatrically stylised, with knowing winks to a complicit audience and hints as to plot development offered throughout the journey by an ‘MC’, voiced with gusto by an effortlessly versatile, and laryngitic, Eddie Ahrens. The ensemble proceed at cheerfully slapstick speed, without appreciable compromise to continuity, and with great attention to the kinds of sleight-of-hand that enable suspension of disbelief in the theatregoer.

Image by Anthony Robling
Image by Anthony Robling
It works wonderfully well as a collective effort, the audience moved to laughter and sadness almost in a single breath by the energy of the players. Not least in scenes that demand a unity of purpose. As the stage is set for the Jarrow hunger marches, and later for the Spanish Civil War in which Jennie Lee served, the actors, now defiantly front and centre, give profoundly moving depictions, in words and song, of a time of groundbreaking change. The cohesive vigour of the Republican battle cry, ‘Nea Pasaran’, especially, is given resounding authority in the music of Sonum Batra. And as the years fall away like stories on a newsreel, historical figures emerge with elemental rapidity: Churchill – in a very persuasive, curmudgeonly turn by Mark Emmons; Nye Bevan, played with reflective insight by Ahrens, and the antithesis to all that Lee stood for, Margaret Thatcher, depicted with lugubrious and alarming authenticity by the versatile Georgina Liley. An actor’s lot to play fundamentally opposed characters in the space of a single scene, the cast worked small wonders with their brief.

And it would be a hard heart that didn’t soften as the final song unfolded into elegy, with a rendition of ‘Bread and Roses’, a fitting commemoration of a woman whose demands for the poor rightly exceeded the meagre victuals with which so many were served.

A full house at Bingley Little Theatre responded to director Marianne McNamara’s polished and professional production with an eloquent, and richly deserved, tribute of its own.

Jennie Lee was performed at Bingley Little Theatre on the 16th April, and is touring.