Writer: Neil Gore
Adapted from the novel by Robert Tressell
Director: Louise Townsend
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Townsend Productions’ first two-man tour was of Neil Gore’s cut-down version of Stephen Lowe’s adaptation of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The success of that tour has led to five more tours of powerful, committed, imaginatively and entertainingly presented agit-prop pieces based on real events, each with a cast of two, Neil Gore as writer/actor/musician plus one other actor, directed by Louise Townsend. This new version of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists gives Gore only a magic lantern for company.
Robert Tressell’s novel was published posthumously in a truncated form in 1914, but even without much of its socialist message and with the positive ending excised it became hugely influential as a major piece of left-wing fiction. It was 1955 before Tressell’s full work was published.
Tressell (Robert Noonan) was a house-painter, an educated socialist, in Hastings (Mugsborough in the novel) before the First World War and his novel depicts the poverty, injustice and hypocrisy of the era in shocking detail. The protagonist is Frank Owen who tries with limited success to make his workmates understand that they are keeping a corrupt system going, they are the “ragged trousered philanthropists”. Deaths come through poverty or violent accident (in the days before our much-maligned health and safety rules) or suicide in the case of Hunter, the cunning and sanctimonious travelling foreman, in his own way also a victim of the system.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a very angry book, but not a gloomy one: the energy of the characterisation sees to that. Tressell takes great delight in pillorying the forces of repression, with their wonderfully Dickensian names: Bob Crass, the painters’ foreman, Alderman Sweater whose house the men are doing up for much of the novel, Mr. Rushton, the ignorant boss who relies on Hunter to find new ways of penny-pinching.
It’s always a delight and a salutary reminder to encounter Tressell’s great book in any form and Neil Gore has been involved with it on and off for over 30 years. In 1984 he played Crass in a student production – and, perhaps not surprisingly, the boorishly ignorant foreman is still the most vivid of his many characterisations.
However, the one-man-and-magic-lantern version doesn’t have quite the impact of the previous two-man show. The story is over-simplified – inevitably, it’s a very long novel – but perhaps too many key events have to be omitted. Much of the evening is devoted to two splendid set pieces: the Great Money Trick, with audience participation, and The Beano, the annual meal, booze-up and opportunity for odious self-congratulation by the bosses. The Beano is the highpoint of the evening, with Gore bringing out his banjo and his concertina and full justice being done to the cringe-making speeches – and the stirring reply.
Throughout the evening Gore switches character at the change of a hat and engages the audience in both the story and the performance. However, one misses the interplay of argument. There are some fine visual effects – best of all, Hunter making his way to the job on his bike up the long hill – and some well-chosen period photographs to set the scene, but the magic lantern concept is a mixed blessing. At times Gore feeds slides in by hand and this slows down the pace and breaks up his delivery. Some technical problems at Marsden will probably not be repeated: the performance came at an early date in a long tour.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed