Writer: Robert Tressell
Director: Neil Gore
Reviewer: Edie Ranvier
Robert Noonan, Irish sign writer, painter and decorator, was only 40 when he died in penury of tuberculosis, and was buried in a pauper’s grave in Liverpool. But his literary legacy as Robert Tressell, author of an impassioned 1,600 page manuscript about the injustices of capitalism which he called The Ragged Arsed Philanthropists, has long outlived him. Published posthumously in 1914 in abridged, politely retitled form, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists quickly became a socialist classic: its popularity was even credited with helping the Labour Party into government in 1945.
And now, with British politics looking more impossible by the day, and a Corbyn-inspired socialist revival enthusing the young left, Neil Gore has come to town with his magic lantern. He’s on a nationwide tour – or, say rather, a mission – to bring the Philanthropists, and the old clarion call for a more equal society, to a new audience. His one-man show has taken in theatres from London to Newcastle, and now comes to Scotland, birthplace of the prophet of capitalism Adam Smith, to share Tressell’s vision, laced with a generous splash of Gore’s own wit and charm.
It’s a lively variety box of a performance, a game of pass-the-parcel where multi-coloured wrappings of creativity and humour swathe the serious message at its heart. Gore switches from light show to accordion music to sing-songs to character acting as he tells the story of a group of painters and decorators in the town of Mugsborough, employed by lazy capitalist Mr Rushton and his penny-pinching deputy “Misery” Hunter to renovate a town house for the local mayor Sweater. It’s easy to forget that you’re watching a one-man show. Putting on a leer, a stoop or a different coloured hat, Gore puts on his characters and puts them off again, and makes them so distinct that it feels as if keen new boy Easton, frustrated artisan Owen or toadying foreman Crass are being played by an actor apiece, not just one virtuosic Gore.
Mind you, he does have help: his easy rapport with the audience (he comes out to chat with us in the corridor before the show has even begun) lets Gore make light work of coaxing us into joining in his songs, and he even charms three smiling, embarrassed magicians’ assistants up onto the stage to help him demonstrate “The Great Money Trick”, the paradox at the heart of capitalism which is one of Tressell’s defining insights into the injustices of the system.
The second half of the show is a little less lively than the first: the socialist rhetoric becomes more explicit, and some of the fun falls away. Barrington, the fledgling socialist politician among the workmen who comes to the fore in this second act, seems the character among all his roles with whom Gore feels least comfortable. The audience isn’t so comfortable with him either: it seems to undercut the show’s message of equality that the true socialist visionary and saviour of these working-class men should be the one with the RP English accent who confesses that he was actually born into a wealthy upper-class family (a point that is unlikely to slip past a Scottish audience in particular).
But it feels mean-spirited to cavil at a master of ceremonies as generous as Gore, and overall The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is an entertaining, absorbing show, wrapped around a kernel of socialist vision that leaves its audience thinking, discussing and debating – as well as smiling – after the final applause.
Reviewed on 16 November 2018 | Image: Contributed