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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