The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Written by Robert Tressell
Adapted for stage by Tom Mclennan
The Casa, Hope Street (29th June)
Kirkby Unemployed Centre, Westhead Avenue (30th June)

Reviewed by Jeremy Hawthorn

Robert Tressell is one of ours. True, his life took him from Dublin to South Africa to Hastings and he only came to Liverpool to emigrate to Canada. But it's Walton cemetery that holds his body in a pauper's grave after he died of consumption in February 1911. We've got his grave marked (see John Nettleton's story in Nerve 11) and he's staying here.

Tressell only wrote one novel. A shortened version came out in 1914, the full text not until 1955. The main story is of a gang of painters who are decorating an upper-class house in 'Mugsborough'. Lacking an effective union, they are victims of all the perils of the free market, from 'individual' wage rates to dangerous equipment to vindictive management and so on. Thanks to religion and propaganda they don't fight back, rather they become Ragged Trousered Philanthropists who don't realise things could be different. It falls to Owen, a skilled signwriter, to argue for socialism.

Putting the book on stage isn't a guaranteed success. I once saw a full-scale Playhouse production that was cringingly bad. But get the politics right and the rest will follow. Tom McLennan's adaptation has 6 actors playing a total of 15 parts (and some crowd scenes), with minimal props and no scenery. Despite or because of this economy, there is complete clarity. The play becomes a series of sketches, each episode telling us something about how society works. Individuals don't really stand out, although Rachael McGuinness plays Bert the foreman as a classic misguided figure. There's even time for a few topical jokes about MPs' expenses and executive pay, which fit in perfectly.

Maybe the only disappointment was the small number of performances. The play was well advertised through the PCSU union yet only played twice in Liverpool and Kirkby before moving on to Manchester and Hastings. The Casa in particular had to turn people away (I only just managed to get in). Let that be a reminder that the Tressell book is just as big an attraction now as when it was first published.

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