Venue: Theatre by the Lake
Where: Keswick, Cumbria
Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists tells the story of the ups and downs of a group of painters and decorators (and their bosses) working to refurbish a house. The men are a microcosm of power and economic relationships, in a world where losing your job could mean the workhouse or worse. Through the story we are offered both an analysis of capitalism and impassioned suggestions for a better (socialist) way to be.
This two-hander adaptation of Stephen Lowe’s 1978 stage version gives us more than a play of ideas, however. Tressell’s story is about the dignity, creativity, and solidarity ideally to be found in work and the workplace, and one of the most enjoyable elements in this production is that the audience sees just how hard its two performers – Neil Gore and Fine Time Fontayne – work to create the evening’s enjoyment. They continually switch between characters, with and without costume changes, rejig the set, and operate puppets. They even find room for a slide show and (with audience participation) explain, in the manner of a magic trick, how capitalism works using three coins and some slices of bread. The performers have an easy rapport with the audience, and a nice line in off-the-cuff workplace banter themselves.
Tressell’s story could easily lose out with so much fun going on. But Neil Gore’s musical direction builds a three-dimensional emotional world through its inventive use of a wide range of period songs. From temperance hymns to knees-up music-hall numbers, from sentimental tear-jerkers (‘Oh Where Is My Boy Tonight?’) to political knockabout (‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’), the audience is invited to sing along, and thus connect more deeply with the world the characters inhabit. There are real moments of pathos here – not least in the vision of the exploitative boss himself crumbling under the pressure of obsessively counting his gains and losses.
Director Louise Townsend marshals all these elements into a finely-paced production which packs a plenty of food for thought into an entertaining and accessible evening.
- Stephen Longstaffe