WhatsOnStage Logo

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Chichester)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
WhatsOnStage logo
There was a time when Tressell's story of impoverished house-painters doing up a sprawling house was a mandatory part of every socialist's education.

This joint production by Liverpool Everyman and Chichester Theatre doesn't pull back on its underlying socialism - as opposed to the original publishers of the novel, who excised much of the more hard-hitting parts of the book.

In truth, Tressell's belief in the arts and crafts movement was always a more  romantic manifestation of socialism. Howard Brenton's adaptation uses a framing device of a young middle-class couple buying the house. His version reduces the cast of characters and simplifies the plot but is recognisably Tressell's book.

Christopher Morahan, who directed the same piece for television in the 60s, brings a very Brechtian touch to proceedings. The use of masks and popular songs are more Berliner Ensemble than Chichester - and Brecht would surely have appreciated the intricate details of their swindles.

There's some excellent work by the cast, particularly by Finbar Lynch as the idealistic Owen, introducing his workmates to his socialist ideals. Lynch's high forehead and piercing stare is an almost cliched representation of the socialist thinker, but he eschews tub-thumping oratory and his softly-spoken interventions are memorable. And his love of art for its own sake is Tressell's authentic voice.

Des McAleer makes Dennis Hunter, the much maligned foreman a much more sympathetic character than the one presented in the book. He captures the disappointment of an idealist trapped in the system - one can almost see traces of Owen in him. And Nicolas Tennant's Bob Crass, the ambitious under-foreman, is a convincing performance of a man on the make.

But none of the hard-working cast disappoints, this is first-class ensemble work - as befits such a socialist play. Plaudits too for Simon Higlett's design, capturing the glory of the house in its Edwardian days and in its modern decay.

What with Bond's Bingo and this, Chichester Festival theatregoers have had a hefty dose of socialism this summer. They can console themselves with the thought that the Tressell's piece is coming home to Sussex (the book is set in a thinly disguised Hastings) - that is if they're not wondering where to buy a six-bedroomed house in the south-east for £400,000.

- Maxwell Cooter


Tagged in this Story