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Theatre Review The darkness before dawn

GEORGE FOGARTY applauds a brilliant one-man version of Robert Tressell’s classic of working-class literature

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
Townsend Productions, 
Old Fire Station, Oxford 

Townsend Productions have made a well-earned name for themselves as purveyors of working-class history of the finest calibre. Their previous work has dramatised some of the most important moments in British labour history, including the Tolpuddle martyrs, Red Clydeside and the Grunwick strike. 

Indeed, tonight’s performance (a one man show performed by Neil Gore) is something of an anomaly in that it is based on a novel rather than a true story. 

The original story follows a group of painters and decorators in the fictional town of Mugsborough, selflessly dedicating their lives to the enrichment of their employer, Mr Rushton. 

It is a difficult book to adapt, devoid as it is of major plotlines or drama, focusing instead on the everyday injustices and hypocrisies faced by the workers, and their attempts to navigate and make sense of them. 

Gore’s version centres around two extended scenes — the first, in Act One, depicts the exploitation of our protagonists during a nine-week job doing up The Cave, the newly acquired pile of Mayor Sweater. 

Gore’s ability to bring to life a whole multitude of characters is remarkable, his face appearing to physically transform each time he dons a new hat, from the ultra jovial Philpot to the big boss Mr Rishton, played like a creepy Alexei Sayle. 

In Act II, the hypocrisy of the local bourgeoisie is on full display at the annual “Beano” attended by Rushton’s workers as well as the “great and good” of Mugsborough. There follows much merriment and music, followed by plenty of bootlicking from the foremen, and some ideological warfare from the mayor and Rushton, whose speeches praise the mutually beneficial co-operation of “masters and men”. 

The division of the play in this way thus echoes the framework of “ethical capitalism” pushed today, in which intense exploitation “in the morning” is justified by charity “in the afternoon.”

Perhaps the most troubling part of the story, however, faithfully replicated from the book, is the “coda” in which Mugsborough is visited by a small army of pamphlet-wielding socialists on bicycles, who struggle to get a hearing in the face of hostility from their brethren. 

In the traditional storytelling dynamic it should be a moment of transformation or at least potential. And yet Owen’s failure to make his voice heard, “weighed down by his conviction of the hopelessness of everything” renders this hope unbelievable. 

When socialism finally appears, it is thus as a stillborn fantasy. 

It is a bitter pill to swallow, illustrating the paralysis of a world in which, in Gramsci’s words, “the old is dying but the new is not yet ready to be born,” just as it is today. 

The fact that within a few short years of the story’s publication, socialist revolution was ablaze across Europe, however, reminds us that sometimes it really is darkest just before the dawn. 

On tour until June
Tickets and venues: townsendproductions.org.uk 

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