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)
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
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.