The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
Robert Tressell, adapted by Philip Dart
Chalkfoot Theatre Arts
Pride of Place Festival 2006
Tressell's novel, hidden under the bed by its modest author and not published until after his death, has been a hugely influential text for socialism. Its loosely autobiographical account of a year in the lives of a group of decorators in Edwardian Hastings (renamed Mugsborough in the book) is written in a documentary style that lends itself well to dramatisation, though adapting a lengthy novel for a cast of four has meant that Philip Dart has had some difficult choices to make.
The play focuses on a small group of men decorating The Cave, a huge house on the outskirts of Mugsborough. Each of them is employed on a casual basis, and we're shown the day-to-day terror they face of being laid off, as their firm tries to cut costs and increase profits. The men discuss the shoddy and cheating working practices they're forced to operate, and we see the harsh treatment they receive at the hands of their works' supervisor, and of the firm's owner, Rushton.
The action highlights the experiences of a few of the men, notably Easton and his wife Ruth, through whom the plight of the family man is demonstrated, and of course Owen, the skilled and sensitive mouthpiece of socialism in the book. Owen agrees to sketch some designs for the walls and ceiling of the Cave's drawing room, which he then executes, and we see how this man's pride in his work pushes out, for a time, all the usual fears of unemployment and starvation. Throughout the play, Rushton's are making a tidy profit from their sideline activity as funeral directors, and illness, accident and starvation are ever-present in the play.
Though some of the characters, and most of the socialist discussion, has gone, the essence of Tressell's argument is demonstrated powerfully through the action itself, and also in a beautifully delivered speech from Owen during the works' outing. Even now, it is moving to hear the argument for social justice and decent working practices as calmly and simply stated as it is here.
In fact, it's the simplicity of this production that is so effective. The small cast works admirably to bring over a dozen characters to life, and the quiet dignity of Morgan Symes' Owen is absorbing to watch. In spite of all that the century between Tressell's novel and ourselves has taught us, we're not beyond appreciating the 'happy' ending of Dart's adaptation. Owen's outspoken demand for better conditions for the apprentice is acted upon by Rushton without repercussions to Owen himself, and due largely to Owen's intervention there are happier times ahead for the Easton family. Tressell's character is surely one of the great working class heroes, and it's a pleasure to renew his acquaintance in this engaging production.
Reviewer: Jill Sharp