The beginnings of the Labour party and the unions have often been linked to Robert Tressell’s thought-provoking book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists now a play by Howard Brenton especially adapted for the Liverpool Everyman and Chichester Theatre.
The story is semi-autobiographical. Tressell – real name Robert Noonan – was a painter and decorator in Edwardian times and could see that the ‘workers’ conspired with their bosses, their ‘masters’ to keep them in poverty. They acquiesced to the status quo and did not think beyond their weekly wage and the fact that they had any work at all. For in those days there were no labour laws to protect the poor and needy. If a boss wanted to lay you off, they did and the working man could do nothing about it. It was the old old story of master and slaves.
The play, which is nicely paced, and gives a telling portrayal of how the workers were well and truly kept down, traces a group of men working to renovate an old house, the home of Councillor Sweater, the Mayor and a draper (Paul Regan). They all work for Rushton’s who cut corners wherever they can to make more profit. Even the foreman, Hunter (Tim Frances) admits that he has worked for ‘Makehaste and Sloggit’ Pushem and Driver, Smeariton and Leaveit’ though hypocritally is a Superintendant of the Shining Light Sunday School and in his spare time hands out biblical tracts.
The action begins in the modern day with a couple viewing the house. The woman can see beyond the decrepit walls to beauty beneath but as the plot regresses back to before the second world war we learn how it was deliberately bodged to cut costs.
Even the corrupt town councillors, successful tradesmen, boast about their good life and how they live off expenses and lavish meals on the rates – a nod to recent times! There is a neat trick where some workers quickly transform on stage to don stuffed shirts and masks to transform into the town council. The names of these men says it all – Sweater, Grinder, Didlum. Only Councillor Weakling, the lone dissenter, and new to the post, shows some compassion and sense, though he is constantly voted down.
The workers, in cloth caps and aprons over paint-splashed clothes sing about the lot of the poor man but do not see the irony in their situation. However, there are dissenters, Owen (Finbar Lynch) and later Barrington (Gyuri Sarossy) who, with some initial resistance, try to make the men see what is happening, with Owen advocating Socialism as the answer. And Owen demonstrates the capitalist system with ‘The Great Money Trick’ using bread to show the men how they are being kept in poverty whilst the masters’ wealth grows through the sweat on their backs.
The poverty is emphasised by little vignettes of family life where the wives are distressed by lack of money and grinding adversity, whilst the men ease their fears by a drink in the pub on the way home, spending money needed for rent owed.
There is some redemption when Hunter, realising that he himself is being slave driven and disappointed he has succumbed to he ‘system’, shockingly cuts his throat – the honourable way out used by the Romans. And the female purchaser decides not to do up the old house, but to pull it down and build anew showing us that the old ways are gone, and that true artisanship is valued.
This is a thought-provoking and enjoyable play that truly demonstrates that we all, to some extent, comply with the status quo – when perhaps we should engage our brains and look around to see just how we are being manipulated for the benefit of others.