Writer: Stephen Lowe, from Robert Tressell
Adapter: Neil Gore
Director: Louise Townsend
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Could this be time for a left-wing revival? Just as Jeremy Corbyn is addressing conference as the Labour leader, Townsend Productions is preparing to take two of its uncompromising agitprop productions – hard-hitting and very entertaining – into London (well, Peckham) for a six-week season. Furthermore The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is produced in association with Harrogate Theatre and Leighton Buzzard Library Theatre, neither of them obvious centres of socialist militancy; Louise Townsend is doing a great job in taking left-wing theatre into the mainstream.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, the novel that won the 1945 election, is a miracle of a book, and it is greatly to the credit of the company that they keep it before us; two audience members dragooned into participation are rewarded with copies. Robert Tressell was Robert Noonan, a tubercular painter and sign-writer who died in 1911. The most memorable parts of his vast novel depict house painters at work in Mugsborough (Hastings), particularly the achingly convincing – and often very funny – depiction of the weeks at work in The Cave, the new house of Alderman Sweater (Tressell favoured Dickensian character names), with the ever-present fear of Hunter (“Nimrod”), the walking foreman, catching a shirker or a smoker and giving him his cards.
There is plenty of powerful satire on the system – from elections to churches to power companies – but these are not easily dramatised and Stephen Lowe’s play, adapted as a two-hander by Neil Gore, concentrates on The Cave, especially two of the novel’s grand set-pieces: The Great Money Trick (where Frank Owen, the socialist, demonstrates the methods of capitalism with some bread, three knives and three coins) and the Beano, the annual occasion for masters and men to come together for the purpose of overeating and getting drunk. From the end of work at The Cave, things shuffle rather quickly to a conclusion, though Lowe and Gore might claim in justification that Tressell at this stage of the novel takes too long to round off proceedings. The important thing, even though the last scene is rather clumsy, is that the play ends positively: the struggle continues.
Besides producer/director Louise Townsend, the moving spirit of Townsend Productions is Neil Gore. Apart from his adaptation, he provides nifty banjo and concertina, plus a half-dozen parts. His Bob Crass, the self-satisfied, venial drunk who is the foreman or “coddy”, is masterly. As company boss, Mr Rushton, he may take the parody voice a shade too far, but his personality dominates the evening, totally engaging the audience and adlibbing amiably and amusingly.
His fellow-actor, Jonathan Markwood, takes longer to get into his stride and his older men are a bit mannered, but he manages the difficult feat of making Frank Owen a real man, not a saint. He joins with Gore to great effect in some lively sing-alongs, with music hall just shading folk song and hymns as the main constituent.
As with all the Townsend productions, the rough edges, like the set filled with dust sheets and pairs of steps, are part of the deal. There is plenty of theatrical skill here in the service of political conviction.
Runs until 3 October 2015 | Image: Contributed