Nearly 40 years ago, a skinny and slightly geeky young lad nervously walked into a college classroom to begin his studies for an A level in Politics, noticing that the student was sporting a Billy Bragg T-shirt, the lecturer picked a dog-eared copy of ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Tressell from the bookshelf and handed it over, urging him to read it. As I write this review, I still have that copy next to me (sorry Mr Beech!), that single act of kindness sparked a lifetime of love for this wonderful novel. In 2011 Actor/Writer/Musician Neil Gore celebrated the centenary of its writing (although it wasn’t actually published fully until as late as 1956), by turning the novel into a two-handed show. This gradually morphed it into a one-man version which he has subsequently performed over 500 times and brings to the spanking new Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot this evening.
The novel’s title refers to a group of house painters and decorators in the fictional town of Mugsborough (based on Hastings in Sussex) and tells the story of a year in their lives as they struggle to eke out an existence in Edwardian Britain. They are ironically called ‘Philanthropists’ by Tressell as they are seemingly happy to work for poverty wages to generate profits for their employers and masters. We are led into this world by Frank Owen, a journeyman painter and staunch socialist, who rails against the blindness of his fellow workers to the social injustice they experience and their unwillingness to change their lot. He calls them ‘slaves’ and urges them towards a more equitable future based on socialism, but his work colleagues sneer or ignore his ‘lectures’ and continue to live and die in penniless destitution.
As a piece of theatre this could run the risk of degenerating into a lecture, but Gore takes their heartbreaking story and weaves it into a fascinating ninety-minute narrative, taking on the guise of multiple roles to illustrate the different strata of society and their place in the capitalist class system of the era. His character work is fascinating to observe, using only differing hats as props he moves between oleaginous foreman Crass, elderly Jack Linden and exploitative boss Rushton in the twinkle of an eye, and brings the audience to raucous laughter with a Mayor Sweater that sounded uncannily like former Prime Minister Boris Johnson! The centrepiece of the first half is the ‘Great Money Trick’ with Gore demonstrating the iniquities of capitalism with just three knives, three washers and three slices of bread, a scene in the book which lends itself beautifully to a theatrical set piece.
The well honed show changes tone somewhat after the interval as the audience noticeably relaxes, inviting more participation and direct engagement from the stage. Gore picks up guitar, banjo and squeezebox accompany himself whilst singing original songs from the Edwardian era lending a ‘Good Old Days’ music hall feel to the evening, further aided by the light box at the rear of the small stage utilising sepia tinted photographs adding authenticity to the milieu.
As the audience comprised mostly of romantic socialists of a certain vintage Gore was undoubtedly preaching to the converted this evening, all no doubt sharing my regret that the ideals that Tressell aspired to in 1911 seem further away than ever over a century later. However, even allowing for this element of partisan support, the staging of this novel in an accessible, humorous and emotional way is a significant theatrical achievement and undoubtedly sent people from the theatre wanting to read or reread the original. The remaining shows at the beautiful Shakespeare North Playhouse are long sold out, but if you wish your flickering socialist flame to be rekindled into a blazing fire, I urge you to seek out this show at other venues around the country this Autumn.
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 14th September 2023
North West End UK Rating: