The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Robert Tressell in a new adaptation by Howard Brenton
A Liverpool Everyman and Chichester Festival Theatre Production.
Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Production photo

Sadly, in 1911 Tressell died of tuberculosis and penniless, before his evocative semi-autographical novel was published, but thanks to his daughter Kathleen, the manuscript survived and became (even to this day) compulsive reading, often being known as ‘The Painter’s Bible’, and frequently quoted by those who see the injustices and inequalities in life and wish to redress the balance.

Tressell was an accomplished painter/signwriter, and his voice is heard through Frank Owen - no tub-thumping rhetoric, but played with a quiet, dignified resignation by Finbar Lynch, as he tries to explain to his fellow workers the famous Money Trick where all their hard-earned wages find their way back to the bosses, making them even richer. This has to be explained to them three times (with the help of a loaf of bread) before they can grasp the logic, yet even their indignation at the injustice doesn’t make them band together to rebel.

“The present system means joyless drudgery, semi-starvation, rags and premature death; and they vote for it and uphold it. Let them have what they vote for! Let them drudge and let them starve!”

These are the “ragged trousered (not Tressell’s original word) philanthropists”, craftsmen proud of their skills, but forced to bodge and skimp their work to increase the profit for the greedy employers. Edwardian times, and no state benefits - they did what they were told.

Cleverly condensed by Brenton (whose new play Anne Boleyn is due to open at the Globe) into a stage version of only two hours, on Simon Higlett’s ingenious three level set of a large house showing dilapidation, restoration and finally decay, the men work, laugh, joke, and sing making the best of their lives. Ilona Sekacz provides the music, including some popular songs of the time, and Tom Lishman unobtrusively provides atmosphere too with the distant sound of horses, carriages or a barking dog

Director Christopher Morahan uses his excellent ensemble cast to the full, switching the workers into the cheating, manipulative and greedy bosses with the aid of masks, padding and the addition of waistcoats and tail coats, which nicely demonstrates how easily they can change from one to the other, as confirmed by Nicholas Tennant’s Bob Crass who, when offered promotion, accepts with alacrity and immediately begins haranguing his underlings as the hated Mr Dennis Hunter (Des McAleer) had done before him.

Larry Dann is endearing as Old Joe Philpott, meeting his end while desperately trying to carry on working, and Thomas Morrison is an appealing young apprentice, Bert White, proudly showing off his ‘Pandorama’.

Entertaining, often very funny, yet sometimes heavy going as the long speeches endlessly repeat their mantra of the destructive capitalist system holding down the subservient workers, hammering the message home, but Tressell doesn’t completely let the workers off the hook and he blames them for being their own worst enemies. They have their own fiddles too with Dean Ashton’s beautifully judged performance of philandering Jack Slyme trying to cheat with rolls of wallpaper.

Despite state benefits, the comparisons with the present day are obvious (especially the mention of the government’s use of expenses) but are emphasised by a young, upwardly mobile couple buying the house but knocking down the price - until the wife finds her social conscience.

In repertory until 26th August

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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