The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists


Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Another day in Edinburgh, another play. The book, by Robert Tressell, had a deep influence upon a whole generation of trade unionists, my generation in fact, for it was published circa 1956. There was hardly a shop steward or full time official in any kind of active capacity who had not read the book and who did not hold it in some level of awe. It would have been relatively easy, in those days, to convey it’s impact, to proclaim it’s message to a trade union movement that was actually moving. Today? Young activists are attracted by a sometimes bewildering rainbow of issues and trade unions play a much smaller part in their leadership of radical agitation.

In Edinburgh two formidable actors attempt to bring the message of the book back to life, perhaps for a different, younger audience. Their first problem is that there is only two of them and therefore they are involved in numerous rapid costume changes to play thirteen different characters. And it all gets a bit confusing as to who is who. Tressell, if he had been a member of Equity, would probably have picketed the production!

There next problem, it appears to me, is that the audience they are attracting are the silver surfers, like me, and not the young Edinburgh Fringe crowd. They are playing to the converted. That is not their fault, but it is going to need a much bigger, much more expensive theatrical production to re-vitalise the message of this book. Perhaps a musical or an opera?

Did I enjoy it? It was OK. The production ended with the erection of a Worker’s Banner designed and painted by the central character Frank Owen, the sign painter. My son, who was with me commented that this was the second play he had seen with me that ended with the showing of a Union banner, the first being the Pitman Painters that we had seen in London. I think he is beginning to spot a pattern!

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One thought on “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

  1. You’ll be thrilled to learn that there will be a film coming out next year so that may appeal to your desire for the message of the book to be reach a younger crowd. That will no doubt be funded using tons of money from capitalist rich Hollywood and be driven along by a need to make lots of dosh to repay those fat cat h’wood producers. Let’s hope not. But why bother doing theatre then? Why not review the show without preconceptions of what you call ‘problems’ and trying to guess our audience? Our desire was to create a piece of theatre and storytelling that works and we have worked very hard to guide our audience through all the characters they meet and their individual stories. Our aim too was to create a piece of theatre that is mobile enough to play in all manner of venues large and small, to take the still relevant messages to all manner of audiences not just ‘silver surfers’, and we run workshops for younger people based on the Great Money Trick – I can’t wait to see your large full cast and orchestra operatic version touring to village halls with an acting space of 15 ft square. Furthermore, the play was originally written in 1978 for Joint Stock, Pitman Painters is a couple of years old, and the unvailing of the workers unite banner dates from our production. The unvailing of the banner at the end of the play is as powerful and poignant now as it was then, and I’m sure it’s relevant and powerful in the Pitman show too. If it works, use it! Don’t knock it just because you saw it in some other show!

    We’ve attempted to create accessible, fun theatre with a very serious message pointing up modern day relevancies using as a backdrop of a brilliant influential piece of literature that is very dear to the hearts of our sponsors all the main unions in the country, and dear to the many people who have come to see the show who either read the book, had friends or family who have, or will re-read it having seen the show, or, most importantly those who will now read the book, having seen our show. Let us be judged on that.

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