Robert Tressell’s posthumously published novel deals with the lives of house painters in Mugsborough (Hastings) in a mixture of powerful social realism and roistering comedy with a whiff of the music hall – just note the satirical Dickensian names, Crass, Sweater, Didlum, Philpot and the rest. Through it all runs the figure of Frank Owen, the tubercular idealist (a thinly veiled portrait of Tressell, aka house painter Robert Noonan) whose lessons in revolutionary socialism receive scant respect from his peers, but whose whole life is a reproof to the self-serving forces of capitalism.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is not an easy book to adapt. There are some splendid invitations to great set-pieces (the Great Money Trick, the Beano), but the most theatrical section of the book, when a large group of painters is working on Mr. Sweater’s house, The Cave, and travelling foreman Mr. Hunter is forever lurking as a baleful presence, can easily dominate the less dramatic, but essential, political scenes and the working out of destinies after the job at the Cave is finished.
The Townsend Productions version is twice adapted: by Stephen Lowe and, then, in a reduction to a two-hander, by Neil Gore. There is something of a dislocation in plot and mood in the closing stages as Lowe hastens to cover 600 pages in two hours, but generally it works extremely well, with patches of straightforward narrative and an inspired use of Bert White, the apprentice, as an observer who never appears: “Bert White saw that...(or thought that...)” becomes a constant motif to enforce the audience’s interpretation of events.
Louise Townsend’s production is informal, but highly professional, on a chaotic set of ladders, dust-sheets, a medley of furniture and (of course) Hunter’s bike, with occasional use of projections and Brechtian title boards. Neil Gore and Richard Stone change characters at the drop of a hat and bring great energy and commitment to their performances. Gore, the more flamboyant performer, is at his best with the gross and devious foreman, Bob Crass, and Owen’s hot-headed recruit, Harlow, while Stone takes on the difficult role of Owen and skilfully differentiates the two old men, Philpot and Linden. Both men share the role of Hunter, both equally sinister, Gore the more overtly villainous. The action is broken up by well-performed, self-accompanied music hall songs, hymns and folk songs.
A highly entertaining evening also succeeds in presenting Tressell’s message undiluted.
Townsend Productions’ The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is now sold out for its Harrogate run, but can be seen in Yorkshire at:
The Carriageworks, Leeds April 5
Square Chapel, Halifax April 6
The Lantern Theatre, Sheffield April 29/30
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough May 8/9