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Theatre review: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists/ Liverpool Everyman

Philip Key watches a brick of a book be condensed into two hours

Published on July 25th 2010.

Theatre review: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists/ Liverpool Everyman

IT'S nearly a century since Robert Tressell’s autobiographical novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, was published and has remained in print more or less ever since.

It has been an inspiration for generations of socialists and often named as a favourite among politicians. In Liverpool, it has a particular resonance as this is the city where Tressell was buried.

So it was only natural that a new stage dramatisation should have its world premiere here and that the adaptation should be done by Howard Brenton, a writer whose work has generally been of the Left.

With a director like Christopher Morahan, who had such a success at the same theatre with Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker (and whose past work has included directing and producing the TV epic The Jewel in the Crown), The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has all the right elements in place.

And so it proves, although there needs to be some reservations.

The story is that of a group of painters and decorators in 1904 working for low wages on a house in the fictional southern town of Mugsborough who are encouraged in socialist principles by one of their number, Frank Owen.

He points out how the bosses and owners always get rich at the expense of the workers.

One famous scene in the book, The Money Trick, is recreated in the stage version, with Owen cutting up pieces of bread to explain to his workmates how the workers are exploited.

It remains one of the standout moments in the play with Finbar Lynch playing Owen with studied dignity and clarity of expression.

The book which Brenton adapted is a brick of a work at 1,700 pages in its final form, so with a running time of just over two hours there is a lot of the argument elsewhere that had to be cut.

RTP (c) Helen Warner - Finbar Lynch

Nevertheless, Brenton manages to get a fairly sensible narrative out of the material, although the character of Frank Owen gets a little lost in the second half as others come to the fore.

There is also an awkward attempt to show that this 1904 novel is still relevant today by bookending the material with modern sequences. A young couple is buying the house in which Owen and his pals worked on: he is an area manager of a store chain – BargainBest Stores – and while trying to knock down the price of the house explains how BargainBest will be good for the town.

While he is away bargaining with the estate agent, his wife meets the ghost of Frank Owen who tells his story, his workmates join him and so it begins. By the end of the play, the wife takes a different attitude to the house.

RTP (c) Helen Warner - Finbar Lynch, Thomas Morrison & Larry Dan

Of course, there are a lot of modern links, not least the building boss insisting on cheap materials and work (TV’s Rogue Traders springs to mind) and the mayor who owns the house and his local councillor cronies up to all sorts of corruption from “borrowing” corporation flowers for his house to a fiddle involving the Mugsborough Electric Light Company. Step forward some of our recent MPs.

The councillors, incidentally, are performed by the same actors who play the workers, now wearing half masks of evil-looking blighters in posh suits.

It is very much an ensemble piece involving a large cast of 12 with some doubling up. Laura Rees as the la-di-da estate agent of the opening, for example, later appears as the suffering wife of one of the workers.

Performances are universally excellent and despite the poignancy of the plight of the workers, there is some humour, often aimed at the ruling class but sometimes played out among the workers themselves.

It must be said that this is a story of its time and there is little attempt to provide fairness among the characters – the workers tend to be the salt of the earth, the bosses universally hard-hearted. One supposes that was necessary to get across the political points.

The foreman/ manager Hunter (Des McAleer) treats his workers like slaves, the under-foreman Cross (Nicholas Tennant) follows his orders and the boss of the decorating firm, Rushton (Paul Regan), is just keen to do everything on the cheap and blow the workers.

As a drama, there are bumpy moments where it all gets a little bitty with some undeveloped scenes but overall it works well enough.

There is a splendid house set from designer Sean Higlett which offers a few magical moments, not least the gradual appearance of the decorative painting by Owen, and director Christopher Morahan generally keeps things on an even keel.

Produced by the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse with the Chichester Festival Theatre, while the production does not quite capture the epic feel at which it seems to aim, it is, nevertheless, a lively piece of theatre which does fair justice to one of the giants of Left Wing literature.


The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists runs at the Liverpool Everyman until July 10.

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darth FormbyJune 23rd 2010.

Entirely with Carmela.

Ay!Carmela!June 23rd 2010.

Thouroughly enjoyed it, though the (spoiler alert) dummy dropping sequence was decidedly dodgy, involving a man shrunk to half his size and the acquisition of Muppet-like foam hands. It would have been better to have blacked out the theatre and returned to the body already covered on the barrow.

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