The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Izigwili Ezidlakazelayo)

Stephen Lowe
Isango Ensemble
Hackney Empire

Male ensemble and puppets - The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Isango Ensemble Credit: Ruphin Coudyzer
Male ensemble - The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Isango Ensemble Credit: Ruphin Coudyzer
Female ensemble - The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Isango Ensemble Credit: Ruphin Coudyzer

This is a reworking by director Mark Dornford-May and the company of Stephen Lowe's adaptation of Robert Tressell's novel, which was published in 1914, and transposes the setting from the south coast of England to Cape Town where its team of building workers are now employed in the decoration of a cinema.

It opens with a chorus of broom-wielding, white-wigged maids who wear grass skirts over their black and white maid's uniforms, a confusion of cultures whose significance I am still trying to work out, but it does emphasise the way in which this treatment of the original book, which presents the workforce from a Marxist perspective, acquires an additional layer of relevance when exploitation is by race as well as by class.

The details of the book's political arguments get a bit lost, especially when British ears are trying to decode South African accents, but the call for solidarity comes through clearly and a centrepiece of this show is a stirring rendering of "The Red Flag," something not often heard in British theatres these days. There is also a rather delightful arrangement of "God Save the Queen," but it has a rather different impact.

This is not a musical in which the numbers grow from the characters' need to express situations between them or to carry parts of the story. On the one hand, if I read it right, it is used to indicate those periods when the builders are at work, as opposed to their break times when they chat and talk politics; on the other, it is used to express the spirit of the people. At one point in the story, the men ironically form themselves into a group in parody of black-face minstrels and give us a tongue-in-cheek number about black male endowment, then are off to the seaside to stage a concert that includes a rendering of "Sonny Boy". The songs are sung almost entirely a capella with delightful harmonies and this company are not only fine singers but spirited dancers. It is the music and the nimble-footed dancing of this company that are at the heart of the show's appeal.

This is very much an ensemble piece, but each performer creates a well defined character from the overweight foreman to the maid who brought up her brother. In contrast, the white (male) capitalist figures are played symbolically in a highly stylised manner by black women in whiteface. The employer even pops his head up from a pile of timber in the workplace. In one scene the lights go up in the auditorium to reveal the work the men have completed: a place of wonder, but for white men to use, not themselves.

Things may have been more clear cut, economic structures more obvious when Robert Tressell wrote his novel a century ago. Changes in our social structure have made it more difficult for people to identify as "workers" and respond to the socialist call to unite, but as the disparity between people becomes greater, the rich richer the poor poorer with increasingly differential income and the capitalist economy shows cracks that could turn into craters, does his message still resonate? In a world where all but the poorest have credit cards and ISAs, where taxpayers fork out for millionaire bankers, it may seem a cry in the wind but you can't help responding to its optimism.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton