Ragged relevance for our times: reviewing the stage adaptation of ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ at Chichester Theatre

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Frank Owen uses bread to demonstrate the theory of surplus value to the workers. Genius!

This blog is named after Frank Owen, the principal hero of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, so there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to watch the new stage adaptation of Robert Tressell’s socialist classic at Chichester Festival Theatre this weekend.

In fact it’s hard to imagine how I would not have enjoyed this play. Perhaps it would not be receiving two Jako thumbs up if Howard Brenton and Christopher Morahan – respectively the script writer and director – had decided to reinterpret Tressell’s work through the medium of street dance.

Actually that could still have worked. To have seriously disappointed me the plot would have had to have been altered  so that in the end the big surprise was that Frank Owen actually turned out to be a Tory.

Written a century ago, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists laments the social and political failings of Edwardian Britain. However, Tressell’s satire and socialist propagandising retain a relevance which give the play added bite.

For example, Tressell attacks the Tories and Liberals for presiding over an unjust society based on exploitation. The play’s producers must have been pleased when the coalition Government was formed! With a Cabinet full of Conservatives and Lib Dems putting forward policies to shaft the poor, it’s obvious that these two parties still represent the same old privileged class interests. (Admittedly Tressell would probably have lambasted the timidity of today’s Labour Party.)

Tressell also railed against the corruption of politicians. This was done brilliantly in the play, with all the bosses played by the actors wearing slightly unnerving masks. They were discussing how to fiddle their councillor expenses. Ooo er! Unfortunately greedy money-grabbing politicians did not become extinct in 1910, so these scenes struck a particular chord.

Most of the acting (and singing!) was great. My one criticism would be that the two women in the cast seemed weaker than all the blokes. Their accents were not dependable and none of the characters they played really worked. To be fair, the play has to cut down on a lot of stuff that happens in the book with the result that there are fewer domestic scenes. This means that the female characters are not so well developed on stage as they are in the pages penned by Tressell.

Chichester is not a hotbed of revolutionary thought. It’s a place populated by retired colonels where buyers of the Guardian are undoubtedly given funny looks by newsagents. However, the rest of the audience seemed to appreciate the play. I certainly hope that the play will be taken to other theatres so that the ragged trousered brilliance and Tressell’s socialist ideals are spread far and wide.

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