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The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at The CLF Art Cafe

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
Jonathan Markwood as Philpott and Neil Gore as Crass

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was originally created, using what is now called “the Joint Stock Method”, back in the 1970s by Stephen Lowe and Joint Stock Theatre. The piece was workshopped and adapted from Robert Tressell’s working class/ socialist classic novel of the same name. Since its first performance in 1978 the piece has had many incarnations around the globe with various cast members and staging scenarios. This current production playing at The CLF Art Cafe in the Bussey Building in Peckham comes to us as a carefully constructed two-hander adapted by Townsend Production’s co-founder and performer Neil Gore.

The piece is set in Edwardian London; it’s 1906 and skilled painters are able to earn £1 5s in a good working week. However, not dissimilar to the zero hour contracts we are experiencing in 2015, work is not guaranteed. If you are off sick you are not paid and if there are bad weather conditions you are not compensated. The average cost of living for a two person household would have been £1 0s 2d per week. It’s 2015 and the country is debating the cost of a Working Living Wage for all.

For those not familiar with the book or the play, (as I wasn’t before I saw the production) the piece has claimed the status of a Socialist Classic, a timeless piece that addresses Capitalism and Socialism and the methods for successful change. The performance is, as I mentioned earlier, a two-hander where the skilled performers (Neil Gore and Jonathan Markwood) take on the roles of 12 different characters. This is beautifully done, the ease of movement between each character is mastered very well, often it is only the removal of a hat, or a change to their gait and a new character is on the stage. The transformations are a beauty to watch – although I must say I got a bit confused in the first act as it took me some time to establish who each character was.

The piece is embroidered together through narrative text, dialogue, film and photography, songs, music, puppetry and game play. The audience is invited to join in with their songs and we find ourselves singing at the top of our voices and waving our arms from side to side to Musical Director John Kirkpatrick’s original songs and folk adaptations.

My favourite part of the production takes place at the end of the first half – here we are introduced to The Money Game – a simple game where Capitalism is explained so clearly that a young child could understand. Audience members are invited on stage and help the performers tell their tale. As a thank you they are given a copy of the original novel. This is absolutely lovely and a great way to complete the first half of the play.

I can’t say that I really enjoyed the story, however, I can say that the acting was first class and the play does hype the audience so when you are leaving the show you want to fight the capitalist battle that is the current Tory party. (The hate for the current government is alluded to very clearly in the puppetry scene, and a certain joke about a pig’s mouth receives a cheer from the audience).

The themes that the play draws upon are unsettlingly, as relevant in 2015 as they were in 1906. I left the play and had a great debate with my flatmate regarding free workers, which in this play were the first year apprentices, unwaged and in 2015 are interns. The question of zero hour contracts, a working living wage, the Jnr Doctors and the RMT strikes. We talked about this generation being one where we live on the edge without savings and the fear that if we lose our jobs we will lose our homes and have to rely on friends, family and the government for help.

If this show is designed as a vehicle for debate and action, then it 100% does its job – I am intrigued to read the original story and I have thought more about my political stance. The play is clearly a PR vehicle for the socialist party and I would imagine any right-wing supporters would feel very uncomfortable watching this production.
Three and a half gold stars

Review by Faye Stockley

A two-handed version adapted by Neil Gore from the Stephen Lowe play based on Robert Tressell’s classic book.
Townsend Productions present this classic story of a group of painter-decorators who are joined by artist Owen, whose spirited attacks on the dishonesty of Capitalism, along with his Socialist vision, highlight exploitation in the workplace and inequality in society. Relevant still, this tale is told with vigour and passion.

This hugely successful production is a gem of Edwardian humorous theatre with songs and music of the time directed by folk legend John Kirkpatrick. “A strong and robust show that brings the characters, humour and inspirational ideas of this great book to life. It is needed now more than ever.

The production is produced in association with Harrogate Theatre and Leighton Buzzard Library Theatre and sponsored by Southwark Socialists, part of the Independent Socialist Network and has the backing of the unions UNITE, NUT, Unison, RMT, GMB and Amiel Melburn trust.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
5th – 31st October – 7.30pm Monday – Saturday
Block A, Bussey Building,
133 Rye Lane, Peckham,
London, SE15 4ST
Book Tickets: http://www.clfartcafe.org


  • Faye Stockley

    Faye read Theatre & Performance at The University of Warwick; she went on to work as a stage manager in London and Edinburgh. She had a year's stint on-board the MV Island Escape as a Social Host and Compere and now works full time as a Recruitment Manager for the broadcast, entertainment and media sectors.

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