It’s a bit of a déjà vu experience, taking me back to the 1970s and the days of agit prop theatre at the likes of the old Half Moon and Unity, right down to the girl flogging copies of Socialist Worker as the audience leaves. Neil Gore’s version of Stephen Lowe’s dramatisation of Robert Tressell’s early 20th century novel is more cuddly than some which I have seen, but it tries too hard to be too many different things for too diverse an audience.
That’s not to say that Louise Townsend’s production isn’t well-served by its two very hard-working performers. Gore and Rodney Matthews play a welter of parts as the story of jobbing painters and decorators being as much manipulated by their foreman as by their actual employer unfolds. Fine Time Fontayne’s design clutters the stage with ladders and barrels, rickety tables, dust sheets and even a magic lantern – not to mention a tea party of puppets.
Gore and Matthews do their best to get the audience to sing along; two even join them on stage. But not everyone knows the old music-hall songs, let alone the revivalist hymns. We do feel for the individual men facing arbitrary wage cuts or even dismissal and appreciate Frank Owen’s desire to show what he can do when allowed to be creative with good materials in the industrialist’s mansion which the team are renovating.
Both actors play five or six parts apiece, changing character with the doff of a hat or the twitch of a clay pipe, can carry a tune and decorate it with assorted instruments. The book was written from experience and carries bite as well as bitterness. This staging, with its air of travelling players’ fit-up, manages to distance itself from the grim reality of the situations it displays and the final unfurling of a union banner seems to come as a species of add-on, and not grow organically from what has preceded it.