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The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Harrogate Theatre

Writer: Stephen Lowe based on the book by Robert Tressell

Music: Played by Neil Gore and Frank Owen

Director: Louise Townsend

Musical Director: Neil Gore

Reviewer: Sue Collier

[Rating: 4]

This near century old tale is as fresh and relevant today as it ever was. It is the vivid story of a group of painters and decorators who over a period of time are employed to decorate the house of Mayor Sweater while struggling to survive the desperate working conditions and low pay of working class Edwardian England. The workers decorate the grand homes of the rich, the like of which they know they are unlikely to ever own themselves.

This is a time when there are too many blokes chasing too few jobs and machines have started to take the blame for men being out of work. This is England, at a time when the poor are considered lazy and deserving of their plight. Does this ring any bells?

On their pitiful annual day out, the workers are reminded by one employer that he is not only their master but also their friend. He describes all socialists as being too lazy for work and tells the workers how lucky they are to have such good masters. The effect is that the desperate workers begin to cheer him and sing For he’s a jolly good fellow and other songs in favour of capitalism.

Despite the serious theme of this story the performance includes a significant but gentle comedy element. There is even talk of a man who could fart The Marshall Hayes (the French National Anthem).

Between them, the versatile two man cast of Neil Gore and Richard Stone play all eleven characters in the story. They sing contemporary songs and play a range of musical instruments (harmonica, mandolin, accordion, banjo) while engaging the audience in a comfortable rendition of Two Lovely Black Eyes.

These actors present as very comfortable with themselves and also with each other. They work endlessly throughout and have a good rapport with the audience. Not only do they act a range of diverse and constantly changing characters, they also make swift costume changes, perform a magic lantern show, manage complex scenery and stage property changes and perform a musical puppet show.

Further audience participation is creatively used in The Great Money Trick in which two members of the audience participate in a sketch demonstrating the capitalist exploitation of the masses. The two ‘volunteers’ who appear to find this a very enjoyable experience, are each rewarded with copies of Robert Tressell’s book.

This performance leaves one impressed by the versatile cast, and thoughtful and creative staging of a production which is very well worth seeing.

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