LONDON REVIEWS AUTUMN 2015
★★★★ THE STAGE 'Imaginative & timely '
★★★★★ Down Stage Centre - 'This terrific production peers into the world of skilled tradesmen in pre-World War One England '
★★★★ Stage Review ' Townsend Productions' The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at CLF Art Cafe is inspired, witty, entertaining and cleverly performed by a cast of two.'
★★★★ The Londonist 'Louise Townsend’s tight direction keeps the show entertaining as well as thought-provoking.'
'Exciting piece of theatre'
'The production is an inspirational triumph – don’t miss it.'
Townsend Productions present this classic story of a group of painter-decorators who are joined by artist Owen, whose spirited attacks on the dishonesty of Capitalism, along with his Socialist vision, highlight exploitation in the workplace and inequality in society. Relevant still, this tale is told with vigour and passion.This hugely successful production is a gem of Edwardian humorous theatre with songs and music of the time.
“A strong and robust show that brings the characters, humour and inspirational ideas of this great book to life. It is needed now more than ever. You'll leave the theatre and join the struggle!” Ken Loach, Film Director.
★★★★ “Tremendous” The Times.
10/10 “Sensational” Liverpool Echo.
★★★★ “Highly entertaining” Whatsonstage
INTERVIEW WITH NEIL GORE ABOUT THE SHOW
Can you tell me about the story of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
Our adaptation of Robert Tressell’s classic book 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' shares with its audience a year in the life of a group of painters and decorators as they renovate ‘The Cave’, a three-storey town house, for Mayor Sweater. It traces their hardships and struggles for survival in a complacent and stagnating Edwardian England. These workers are the ‘philanthropists’ who throw themselves into back-breaking work for poverty wages in order to generate profit for their masters. They are joined by artist Owen whose spirited attacks on the dishonesty of Capitalism along with his Socialist vision highlights the exploitation in their workplace but also focuses on the inequality in society as a whole.Why did you decide to the stage the production as a two-hander?
A two-handed version of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has never been done before and the artistry in turning it into a successful play for two has been immensely challenging and very rewarding. It’s a bright combination of action and storytelling, using as many different theatrical devices as possible to surprise and ‘keep on their toes’ our audience
It being a two-hander has given us the adaptability and flexibility to enable us to reach a huge audience cross-section by playing vastly different venues, from major Regional Main-house Theatres or their Studio spaces, to Arts Centres or Village Halls and Community Centres, as well as Labour and Working Men's Clubs.
In a way, making the show a two-hander means that many restrictions are actually lifted. By its very nature the production becomes altogether a more theatrical event. It can’t be a ‘faithful’ adaptation, taking on every storyline with an actor per character, there simply isn’t time, so corners are not so much cut, as embellished in a theatrical way. All the hard work was done initially by Stephen Lowe, whose version it is I have adapted. His version for seven actors had all the spirit of the book but focussed its attention on one particular storyline, along with the themes that accompanied it. That meant that when coming to adapt his version with his permission, I had merely to add some narration from the book; with a little bit of fiddling, our version, content-wise, actually differs very little from his original play.What can the audience expect when they come to see the play?
It’s a cracker of intense, detailed, non-stop, energetic storytelling theatre using all of tricks to push the narrative along – multi-role playing, puppetry, magic lantern, music and harmonised period songs. All this is presented by two actors who also operate the lighting and do the scene changes. If that isn’t enough, it successfully condenses the huge 500 plus page novel of ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ into one and a half hours lively and entertaining theatre.
Lively theatre may not be anything new, but that this show has a lot to say too about how we live, work and play now is what makes it so striking. The play successfully captures the spirit, variety and character of the book about painters, decorators and craftsmen that is a favourite for many, many people and a life-changing read for so many others.
You would have to see many shows before you come across one that will have an audience enthralled by the skill and alacrity of its performers as well as being drawn into the important themes and messages of the story and the characters. We offer a 'Good Night Out' for our audiences as well as offering up a strong message or challenging argument.
A play with only two actors, tackling a huge novel, will have more than its fair share of physicalisation. Each actor takes on six characters, and to make the characterisations as distinct as possible there is inevitably a degree of contortionism! But this physicalisation lies at the heart of the play, as the changes of character are so swift they demand clear and deft definition. The pattern of a scene involving several characters has to be choreographed as if it were a dance to signal to the audience exactly where the focus is at any particular moment.
How relevant is the play to today?
‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ was published in 1914 with Britain on the verge of war and enduring a deep recession and a tight economy at a time when wages and working and living conditions were for the many deeply appalling. Questions were being raised about the reliability of those thought to be masters and the system of Capitalism was being scrutinised by those who saw it responsible for massive inequalities in society. On the smaller scale, the plight of Tressell’s ‘philanthropists’ (so-called because they willingly throw themselves into back-breaking work for poverty wages in order to generate profit for their masters) will resonate for many working and living in our current times of austerity as wages and conditions are being squeezed as the cost of living rises, whilst the very rich just get richer. The core themes of the book are still as relevant as they were then, and for many, recent developments in policy seem to be driving us back to the inequalities of Tressell’s time. By promoting this play and book we aim to voice our disapproval and suggest that Tressell’s vision be re-examined as a viable alternative to the greed of Capitalism.The production has been touring for nearly 2 year, how do you keep the production fresh from venue to venue?
The play has been constantly developing from its first show to now, constantly improving and changing, and with each cast change, there have been three now, comes a new input of fresh ideas and energies, so that inevitably keeps the show fresh. It is also a show that has so many aspects to it in terms of style, that it relies heavily on using so many acting and performing skills that it is always a pleasure to do. For the Edinburgh Fringe run last year the show had to be clipped by 25 minutes, and in a way that helped to streamline the show into a much better, more watchable piece of theatre.
How involved have the unions been with the production?
The play serves as a reminder of the key issues faced by workers and people of the country today: increased casualisation of the workforce, diminishing rights at work, individual contracts that ignore pensions and overtime, frozen or reduced wages, cuts to public services, wilful destruction of the welfare system and the hopelessness of poverty. The union Unite are at the forefront of raising awareness of these issues using education and theatre as a means of stirring people into action and challenging the inequalities that workers face. Unite Scotland seized the opportunity to support the show at the Edinburgh Fringe to accompany the promotion of their cause and offer people membership and representation in their place of work. We organised two special events in support of the play at their head office in Glasgow, and at the Scottish Parliament to explore the themes of ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’, its relevance to today and then to open up the floor to debating a way forward.
Most of the unions have been extremely supportive of the production and have offered their support through small donations to enable us to build the set, get the costumes and so on and also tour and promote the show around the country. We have also performed the show at some union conferences and at TUC Congress House in London.
Who is the play aimed at?
The play is aimed really at anybody who likes the book, or is interested in politics or social history, or anybody who loves theatre, as it is a very theatrical storytelling experience. We have tried to make the show as accessible as possible to all, so really there is something in it for everyone.
Background to Robert Tressell
Robert Tressell, a pseudonym for Noonan, was born in Dublin in 1871 of a middle-class family. In his late teens he left for South Africa, where he worked as a sign-writer and housepainter. Returning to England at the turn of the century, with his young daughter, Kathleen, he made what living he could by his trade in Hastings.
Although housepainters were severely hit by the economic depression, it was a time of great activity and heated discussion within the British socialist tradition.
“…hugely enjoyable in every way – powerful, tuneful, hilarious, inventive, touching, topical and all delivered with a twinkle in the eye by two multi-talented, highly skilled actors.” Richard Wolfenden-Brown, Artistic Director, Plough Arts Centre, Gt. Torrington, Devon.
The 1906 election was the first where the majority of the movement and the unions backed the emerging Labour Party in its reformist Parliamentary direction. Tressell was a member of the more Marxist Socialist Democratic Federation, which argued against the philosophy for some time.
Tressell died in 1911 of T.B. and was buried in a pauper’s grave. An abridged version of his book came out in 1914, the full text not being rediscovered and published until 1956, thanks to the dedication of his biographer, F.C. Ball. Against all the odds, the book has attained the status of the first major novel on the British working classes and has become a socialist classic.
Thoughts and feedback from audience members, venue bookers and reviewers…..
“A GOOD NIGHT OUT!”
At Muni Arts Centre, Pontypridd
“Louise Townsend’s two-handed production of ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ is, in the immortal phrase from the title of the late John McGrath’s seminal blueprint for popular theatre, truly ‘A Good Night Out.'" Tom Critchley, audience member at Plough Arts Centre, North Devon.
“These are nights that will last long in the memory of all who were lucky enough to attend.” Tommy Kane, Loganlea, West Lothian Trades Council
“HUMOROUS, RELEVANT, CLASSIC POLITICAL THEATRE.”
“It is a classic piece of political theatre that uses poignant song and knockabout humour, performed with consummate skill by Neil Gore and Fine Time Fontayne, as they slide deftly in an out of a plethora of finely observed characters.
“Last night was another tremendous success: inspiring, uplifting and motivating. The show itself: the craft, skill and ability of the actors, the energy and effort were truly second to none…. So, thanks for coming to Loganlea, West Lothian; you have left your mark here.” Tommy Kane, Parliamentary Officer for Neil Findlay MSP
The skill and imagination displayed in presenting this classic social history of Edwardian painters and decorators, their friends and foes, make this a thoroughly entertaining yet touching and enlightening evening, which avoids the pitfall of boring, earnest political theatre that we may all have had the misfortune of enduring in the past.
There is nothing worthy about this show, but everything is worthwhile. It clearly strongly resonates with an audience of all ages, as we were fortunate enough to be amongst a packed theatre in Great Torrington, North Devon.” Hilary Garnham, former Head of Theatre at the Arts Council and member of Knee High Theatre Company and events organiser for the Eden Project.
“Townsend Productions…have hit on a gem of period humorous theatre with its nonetheless serious message. They’ve revived ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ just at a time perfectly relevant for the trying situations currently foisted onto the guiltless working class by the economic crises created by avaricious American bankers….
“Just wanted to let you know that I very much enjoyed the show tonight. The actors were superb and some of the set pieces excellent. I even got to participate in the Money Trick, great fun and the simple explanation is my favourite part of the book. So thanks for putting this onstage and bringing it to Glasgow." Elaine, Audience Member at The Citizen's Theatre.
Versatility is their forte and between them, FineTime Fontayne and Neil Gore put on two hours first class irreverent entertainment. Louise Townsend’s lively production leaves the audience in fine fettle and better informed about the foolish generosity of employees. By constantly sacrificing themselves by accepting lower wages than they are worth, the men ‘philanthropically’ provide their bosses with greater profits than they have the right to extort. Touring around Britain at various dates, this production is ideal to make a different sort of treat for works social club events. The show can come to your workplace or to a reachable venue. You’ve nothing to lose but small change and a world of pleasure to gain.” Arthur Duncan, reviewer for remotegoat.com
“…a dazzling array of characters presented with theatrical skill and good humour.” Anne Hopper, The Stage.
“This adaptation featured just two actors playing around twelve characters between them, as well as narrating the story and interspersing the dialogue with song on mandolin, ukulele and accordion. I’ve never experienced such masterful transformation from one character to the next…. The intimacy served to confirm the fantastic writing and choreography and the actors’ powerful performances, so genuine and heartfelt when making us laugh and bringing us into their world.” Katherine Stewart, International Socialist Group.
**** “Hats, pipe and exaggerated body language do not have to take the place of deeper characterisation thanks to the skills of the storytellers….” Marianne Gunn, Glasgow Herald.
“…I thoroughly enjoyed this funny, musical and moving adaptation of ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’…. However, amidst the fun was a sadness and a real sense of just how hard the characters’ lives were and how little power they had against the demands of their employers and the wider economic situation." Catherine Davis former Arts officer for Herts County council and audience member at Hertford Theatre on the opening night.
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