Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Play review:

Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Bill Mullins

The south east region of the TUC and transport union RMT recently hosted a new interpretation of the famous play by Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

The play, produced by Townsend Productions and Hertford Theatre and adapted by Stephen Lowe has a cast of just two, Fine Time Fontayne and Neil Gore. They play all the main characters in Tressell’s original book.

For many people the book was their first introduction to socialist ideas and the new play keeps to its original message very well on the whole. Clearly, from the reception when I saw it, most of the audience were familiar with the book and its main characters, otherwise it could have been difficult to follow its drift.

In the play Frank Owen is the socialist who, around 1908, tries to convince his fellow house painters in the fictional town of Mugsborough of the superiority of socialism over capitalism. He met with scepticism and jeering except for one character who agrees that they are being exploited and therefore need to stick together against the bosses who are driving down their wages.

Frank Owen is reluctant to do this and expresses the view that organising against the bosses in unions is playing the game that the capitalists want you to. “We should take over everything and not mess about with the edges,” seems to be his message. Tressell himself was a member of the Social Democratic Federation which Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin critiqued in his pamphlet “Left-wing Communism: an infantile disorder”.

However, the new interpretation does bring out very skilfully some of the key points in Tressell’s original work such as the scene of the “great money trick” and the discussion in the pub during “the annual beano” where the workers are brought out once a year to the countryside on a day trip.

The strength of the original book and previous stage productions (particularly the recent Radio Four play) was that Tressell exposed in graphic form the greediness of the bosses as they exploited the workers and the role of the bosses’ agents.

The play is especially good with Hunter, the general foreman, who spends his times slinking about trying to catch the workers out who might be “slacking”.

In this interpretation the two actors have to rapidly switch between characters (mainly by donning various hats on stage) while explaining to the audience what is going on. They do this well and were appreciated for their efforts.

The play is due at several venues in the coming months. For details see http://www.townsendproductions.org.uk