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The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at the Tara Arts Theatre

Neil Gore in the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - credit Louise Townsend
Neil Gore in the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – credit Louise Townsend

I’m not entirely in agreement that this is a ‘magic show’, as per the front cover of the programme: there are elements of magic that happen, even a couple of ‘wow’ moments, but it isn’t really about levitating cards or bending spoons. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists instead looks at the plight of the working class in the Edwardian era. The audience is told that most people in ‘Mugsborough’, a fictional British coastal town, are below the poverty line, though the play is not nearly as detailed as either the novel, also called The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell (1870-1911) or some of the writings of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) were with regards to the severity of living conditions.

The focus here is instead on industrial relations, or what passed for industrial relations before ‘industrial relations’ was even properly defined. Though the show’s narrator, Neil Gore, voices a great many characters, women and younger children do not feature – the youngest character is a 15-year-old apprentice. Make of that what you will. For me, it is merely indicative of how they were perceived by society at the time, plus a decision has to be made somewhere as to what to focus on.

There’s another show waiting to be produced, if it hasn’t been done already, that looks in detail at the plight of women and children in the novel, but it is a lengthy book, and reducing its contents to an evening’s live entertainment inevitably means some ruthless cutting.

While there are references to organised religion, and even the rendering of a church hymn, ‘When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder’, the repeated and sustained attacks on the apparent hypocrisy of clergy and businessmen in the novel are almost non-existent in this stage adaptation, which is – rightly – more geared towards contemporary audiences, and so the content is made as relevant as it could reasonably be for the early twenty-first century. For example, rather than railing against captains of industry who profess to be Christian (what part of ‘Ye cannot serve both God and Mammon’ do they not get?), as the book does, there’s a lengthy explanation (also in the book) demonstrating how, from a socialist perspective, capitalism makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.

It’s unashamedly left-wing throughout, with a scene devoted to a visit to ‘the beano’, defined remarkably accurately in the Urban Dictionary more than a century after the events depicted in this production: “…slang for a ‘lads’ trip’ away on the p*ss… kind of like a stag-do, but there’s no need for anyone to get married.” But it is the camaraderie, and dare I say it, the comradeship, that makes such an event what it is. It’s re-enacted well in the show, in which Gore literally and figuratively puts on different hats to voice different characters, often to great comic effect.

There’s a significantly more positive feel to this play with songs than there is to the novel, which keeps things engaging and enjoyable. Some actor-musicianship, coupled with frequent direct addresses to the audience, make for a more than sufficiently varied performance. A confident production, it knows what it wants to be: a tale of the struggle of the working man. It tells this story in an entertaining manner, and whatever your political worldview, this is a delightful and surprisingly hopeful production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Due the warm reception the play received across the country, Gore and director Louise Townsend have revised the production, transforming it into a one-man show complete with speeches, audience participation and songs from the classic book, featuring the Great Money Trick as its centrepiece.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a unique document. A novel of humour and sharply observed characterisation, it is also a passionate defence of socialist ideas and one of the first truly imaginative portrayals of life written from a working-class perspective.

The book charts a year in the lives of a group of painters and decorators in the town of Mugsborough at the turn of the last century. Haunted by fears of unemployment, the men struggle to keep their jobs at any cost but, in the course of events, some of them begin to realise that their condition of miserable poverty is neither ‘natural’ or ‘just’.

These workers, the ‘philanthropists’ of the title, who throw themselves into back-breaking work for poor wages to generate profit for their ‘masters’ are joined by an artist, Owen, whose spirited attacks on the dishonesty of capitalism, along with his socialist vision, highlight their workplace exploitation and the inequality in society as a whole.

For more information and tour dates visit: http://www.townsendproductions.org.uk/

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