Theatre: The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists

Interview: one-man show’s new take on lively socialist classic

Socialist theatre company Townsend Productions is about to tour a brand new version of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. The Socialist spoke to Socialist Party member Neil Gore, who adapted and performs in the working class classic.

Neil as the painters' foreman, Hunter, photo Townsend Productions

Neil as the painters’ foreman, Hunter, photo Townsend Productions   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

For people who’ve never come across The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists: how would you describe it?

It’s a classic story. It is the working class novel.

It’s the one that everybody turns to, because it encapsulates all the problems of capitalism. It presents them in a way which paints a wonderful picture of society – not just house painters in Edwardian England, but of all society under capitalism.

And it goes a long way to suggesting solutions as well. It opens up opportunities for debate and discussion.

What [author Robert] Tressell manages to do is to capture working class life with really well-drawn, truthful characters. You’re left with a very sharp impression of what life was like.

That’s the strength of the book. It’s heart-rending. It’s a devastating read on many levels.

With the play, we aim to entertain. And the book helps with that, with brilliant descriptions of daily life – and how the population of the time enjoyed themselves. So we have included many of the songs that are in the book, many of them music hall songs – and we hope to encourage some audience participation.

And this is a fresh version?

We’re currently in the process of putting together a new adaptation of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. But this time it’s for one actor.

Yes, we saw your earlier production, when it was a two-hander.

Haha! Now we’ve got even less! But to do that we’ve had to re-look at it. It’s been good from that point of view, because it means you go back to the book and completely reappraise it and readapt it.

So you still get all the major events of the book, all those wonderful moments that were in the two-person show – you get the Great Money Trick, the breakfast scene, the beano outing and so on.

The Great Money Trick is a classic demonstration. What is it trying to explain?

I can only quote Frank Owen, the socialist workman in the book. He says it’s the means by which those in power exploit the workers – it’s the device by which capitalists, who are too lazy to work for a living, rob the workers of the fruits of our labour, how they hide it.

He argues that money is the main cause of poverty! It’s capital, of course. Pay low wages, charge high rates for the necessaries of life, keep people needing to work to earn, get people in debt. They’ve got mortgages, credit card bills – then you can control people.

What’s new in this adaptation?

It reintroduces the character of Barrington, for instance, the mysterious labourer who doesn’t speak to anybody. And it turns out he’s from quite a wealthy background, seeking a political career.

He really takes up the baton from Frank Owen in the book. Owen’s brand of socialism is like that of Tressell: connected to the traditions of the Social Democratic Federation, with people like William Morris.

Barrington represents the new, proactive politics of the time, through the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

There’s some tensions within that relationship which we explore, but our aim is to ask questions of our audience and leave them with plenty to talk about.

We also get better insight into Hunter, the foreman. He’s twisted and battered by the pressures of capitalism, the pressures of trying to make enough profit for the boss so that he can earn his own small percentage cut.

He’s on the verge of suicide from the start. You could say he’s as much a victim of the system as the blokes he bullies in the workplace.

You mentioned the ILP – is political organising a theme?

Frank Owen tries to introduce his fellow workers to the possibilities of other ways of living, and how they can be achieved. We see it through the Great Money Trick and Barrington’s Great Oration.

In our version, we see Barrington becoming a leader of the emerging Labour Party. It’s about 1910. So he’s stood in front of the banner for the ILP. The main issue is about socialism being the alternative.

And there are characters in it we can recognise today.

Oh, people on insecure contracts, greedy bosses, corrupt councillors, hypocritical religious leaders. All of that! The book is so relevant, it always is.

It’s something I’ve always come back to because it’s vital, important work. If we can get this into schools, if we can get young people to see it – theatre’s a really good accessible means to reach new audiences. It’s live, it’s immediate, so it’s got impact.

It might just spark an interest. Then they can look at the book or the politics of the book. So that’s part of what we aim to do.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists

Dates confirmed so far…


29: The Place Theatre, Bedford


3-5: The Lantern Theatre, Sheffield

6: Marsden Mechanics, Huddersfield

7: Leicester Adult Education Centre

11-12: The Sandon, Liverpool

17: Chilwell Arts Centre, Beeston, Nottingham

18-19: Seven Arts, Chapel Allerton, Leeds

20: The Ropery Hall, Ropewalk, Barton-On-Humber

23: Seven Theatre, Shrewsbury

24-27: Tara Arts, Earlsfield, London

30: The Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth


1: Rondo Theatre, Bath

2: Luton Library Theatre

3: Mumford Theatre and Ruskin Gallery, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge

7: Marx Memorial Library, London

8: Ruskin College, Oxford

9-10: Working Class Movement Library, Salford

13: Clydebank Town Hall

14: Newcastle Trades Council, Wallsend Memorial Hall and People’s Centre

15: Unite the Union, John Smith House, Glasgow

16: North Edinburgh Arts

17: Chaplaincy Centre, University of Dundee

23: The Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft

28: The Plough Arts Centre, Tavistock

29-30: Broadmayne Dorchester


2: Shipton Gorge, Bridport