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Preview Still ragged, still relevant

LEN PHELAN looks forward to a new theatre production of Robert Tressell's groundbreaking socialist novel

WHEN Townsend Theatre Productions first produced its two-man stage adaptation of Robert Tressell’s 1914 novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists a few years ago, it was acclaimed in the national press, including in the Morning Star, and by film director Ken Loach.

Now it's back on the road again in a new version, with hugely accomplished writer and actor Neil Gore as the solo performer.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a unique novel of humour and sharply observed characterisation. It's also a passionate defence of socialist ideas and one of the first truly imaginative portrayals of life written from a working-class perspective.

It charts a year in the lives of a group of painters and decorators in the town of Mugsborough at the turn of the last century. Haunted by fears of unemployment, the men struggle to keep their jobs at any cost but, in the course of events, some of them begin to realise that their condition of miserable poverty is neither “natural” nor “just.”

The workers — the “philanthropists” of the title — throw themselves into back-breaking work for poor wages to generate profit for their bosses. But they are joined by the artist Owen, whose spirited attacks on the dishonesty of capitalism, along with his socialist vision, highlight their workplace exploitation and the inequality in society as a whole.

The production includes an Edwardian magic lantern show, political conjuring tricks and live music and song. The audience join in, participating in the events surrounding the renovation of a large townhouse and meeting the many familiar and infamous characters from the book.

The themes explored are still relevant today, says Gore (pictured). “In 1914, Britain was on the brink of war and the majority of the population were living in a very tight economy with low wages and appalling working and living conditions.

"Questions were being raised about the reliability of those thought to be 'masters' and the capitalist system was under scrutiny by those who considered it responsible for massive and growing inequalities in society.”

Those themes resonate with many working and living under austerity now, where wages and working conditions are squeezed and where many struggle for the basic necessities of life.

“Meanwhile the richest in society just seem to be getting richer. Recent government policy would seem to be driving us backwards into the vast inequalities that existed in Tressell’s time,” he stresses.

The book and the play relate closely to everyone’s experience of work — its rivalries, hierarchies, humour and banter. But there's also “hostility to political change and the acceptance of greed as inevitable and a natural way of life,” says Gore.

"All these aspects of life will be portrayed through theatrical tricks, songs, magic lantern projection and skilled performance of lively, relevant characterisation and rich storytelling, offering a good night out for all.”

Tours from September 29 – June 7 2019, details townsendproductions.org.uk

 

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