Cast of Attlee (Red Wall Theatre)
Cast of Attlee (Red Wall Theatre)
By Caroline Bedale, member of Oldham West, Royton and Chadderton CLP writing in a personal capacity.

Clement Attlee was not just ‘a modest little man’ – he was uncharismatic, dubbed a ‘mouse’. But he was also the leader of the most progressive Labour government ever in the UK.

Red Wall Theatre’s performance last weekend of the play by Francis Beckett, based on his biography of Attlee, portrayed several of the figures who were involved in this transformative time. Attlee’s personal past and behind-the-scenes political discussions with his Labour Party colleagues were brought to life by the strong cast. Joel Dean held centre stage as Attlee, whose simple but pointed comments and charming poems contrasted sharply with the scheming, verbose Herbert

Morrison (played with hectoring reality by Gary Gordon – channelling something of Morrison’s grandson, Peter Mandelson!). As Attlee’s ever-supportive wife – and chauffeur – Violet, Jan Williams (who also directed the play) was the epitome of a woman sacrificing herself and her self for her husband’s career. The contrast with Rose was striking. Played vibrantly by Emily

Alderson, she was the East End girl who became Attlee’s election cheerleader, his secretary, a member of the Communist Party, and then a journalist, maintaining her passion for socialism throughout.

Quietly ignoring Morrison’s challenge to his leadership, the audience with King George VI was just one example of Attlee’s refusal to be thrown off course. David Aldred’s King depicted his out-of-touch ignorance of ordinary people’s lives.

Much of the political action covers the challenge of creating a National Health Service, with Mick Caulfield showing Nye Bevan’s dogged determination to realise his vision. Bevan won the cautious support of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Eton-educated Hugh Dalton, whose haughty carelessness was captured by Brian Hey. Dalton’s loose-tongued comments to the journalist, John Carvell, (played with aplomb by Ian Clarke) led to his downfall, as Attlee was obsessively determined to run a clean government. Bevan, a miner at 15, and Attlee, the son of a well-to-do solicitor and educated at a minor public school, were poles apart in terms of class, but they shared a vision of what a decent society should be. The NHS was only one of the achievements of that Labour Government, which established the founding pillars of the modern welfare state, including education, income security through sickness and unemployment benefits, legal aid, council house building and New Towns, nationalisation of key industries – all despite post-war austerity.

As another self-sacrificing wife, Janet Wilson as Bevan’s wife Jennie Lee, gave a glimpse of what she had given up to support him. She had been a trailblazer as one of the few woman MPs from 1929 to 1931, but it was not until after Bevan’s death that she held significant office in the Wilson 1960s’ governments and oversaw the founding of the Open University.

Facing conflict within the Labour Party, Attlee might have found Churchill an easier opponent. The familiar cigar-smoking figure portrayed by Ian Clarke appeared isolated and the butt of popular songs (“We’ll make Winston Churchill scrub the steps of No 10 … when the Red Revolution comes”). But within 6 years he was back in power, and Labour was in the wilderness for 13 years.

The Red Wall Theatre crew (David Aldred – sound and publicity and website design, Viv Piedot – prompt, Geraldine Gordon – stage manager) all contributed to a very effective show, which had full houses for the four performances in Harrogate and Ripon on 26th to 28th April. Many of the Ripon audience stayed for a Question and Answer session after the show with the playwright, Francis Beckett, and chaired by our CLP branch Trade Union Officer Barry White,. Their questions about Attlee beyond the play –his relationship with world leaders such as Stalin and Truman, his role in the 1940s War Cabinet and in the Labour Party in the 1950s – were testament to the interest that this ‘modest little man’ aroused.

He might have been a mouse, but he was the mouse that roared, though quietly.


The play was performed three times in Harrogate: evenings on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th and matinee on Saturday 27 t h, at St Roberts Club, Robert Street, Harrogate HG1 1HP; and Sunday matinee 28th April at Ripon Arts Hub, Allhallowgate, Ripon HG4 1WB.

Information about Red Wall Theatre: website: or contact: Jan Williams

Francis Beckett (Playwright)
Francis Beckett (Playwright)
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