Robert Tressell’s one and only book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, struggled for nearly 50 years to find its way into print but it has since been adopted by socialists and nick-named The Building Workers’ Bible.
The uncompromising story denounces evil, moustache-twitching, bosses who live off the toil of their down-trodden workers, and gives a voice to the poor, desperate and underpaid. But its bitterness and scathing anger are mixed with compassion, sympathy and a sharp sense of humour.
Depending on which side of the political divide you button your flies you’ll either love or question the argument painted in Townsend Productions’ inventive production of RTT that has just opened at Peckham’s CLF Art Café Theatre.
However you vote you can’t help but admire the diligence of its cast of just two who recreate the entire workforce of an Edwardian building site.
Neil Gore and Jonathan Markwood (so memorable as Dr Prospero in the recent tour of Return to the Forbidden Planet) play five characters each as well as both taking on the role of (boo, hiss) the villain of the piece, the Fagen-like rapacious gangmaster, Mr Hunter.
Far from being a dreary political play Stephen Lowe’s adaptation is inspired, witty, entertaining and cleverly performed.
Director Louise Townsend asks a lot and cracks the whip to get the best out of her men – her cast aren’t being paid the wages of a dozen workers but they certainly put in the blood and sweat – yet they pull off a remarkable performance.
The drama is set in a luxury des res that is being renovated by Rushton & Co for the owners. Rushton’s foreman, Hunter, hires skilled workers for minimum wages. Paint is watered down, an apprentice works for nothing, and corners are cut to boost profits from the job.
Any complaints sees a worker dismissed without a thought and Hunter takes every opportunity to undercut the wages bill while his desperate workers meekly acquiesce.
The actors, changing hats or props, give us beautifully rounded and wonderfully sketched characters that leap out of the script to make a considerably impact.
Their engrossing performance also includes songs, puppets, and even a fart joke (I said that it was entertaining).
Markwood plays the forthright painter and burgeoning socialist, Frank Owen, who offers a voice of dissent, while both play the jovial double act of old timers Harlow & Bob who are happy just to be working.
Rushton (Gore) is portrayed as slimy and grasping who defers to the wiles of his foul foreman to line his pockets.
The play says a lot about working conditions, some of which have, shamefully, not changed much since 1910 when it was written. It also throws up a lot to think about (and question) and I can understand why Neil Gore has been a staunch supporter of the work ever since his first stage outing at university.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists plays at the CLF Cafe Theatre until October 31.
- The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
Townsend Productions’ The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at CLF Art Cafe is inspired, witty, entertaining and cleverly performed by a cast of two.