The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist

Elvis Costello played a blinder at the Meltdown Festival in London this week. Reviews were great, with one incisive pundit in particular picking up upon on the fact that Costello’s songs sound better sung under a Conservative Government.

Said scribe was right. They resonate in times of austerity. The point? Great art turns a mirror towards its audience and takes the temperature of the town it’s visiting.

Which brings us nicely to this new adaptation of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, launching on the night of the first Con/Dem budget. Coincidence? You’re joking. To suggest so would be an insult to The Everyman and writer Howard Brenton (who has a history of tackling classic texts in modern times: Danton’s Death and more recently Goethe’s Faust).

The Everyman’s production is an adaptation written for this town – at this time. But the story remains the same – a group of painters and decorators work long hours for little pay, with the threat of the sack looming over their collective shoulder, almost as much as their foreman does.

Meanwhile, in the same part of town but higher up the hill, the employers sit back and revel in this power – while never missing an opportunity to cut corners, save money, lay workers off and fatten their own wallets (sound familiar?).

Nothing philanthropic about that.

And herein lies the rub.The downtrodden are the philanthropists. Always have been. And, according to Robert Tressell’s original 1914 novel, change will only come when we wake up.  This is a text written and digested by the working classes. Us against them. Rich against poor. Men against masters.

It’s no wonder George Orwell loved it and Trade Unions have adopted the brick-sized novel as their Bible.

But how does this adaptation stand-up to the book’s Big History?

Surprisingly well, considering the weight of what’s being said and how it’s delivered. Long speeches dominate, the ensemble cast are on and off stage like general labourers in a Victorian Winter and the clever two-storey set is striking, but never distracting. It’s the little things that make this production resonate.

Attention to detail with a nod and a wink is the key: the grotesque masks and bellies of the masters; young apprentice Bert’s innocence and naivety (a memorable performance from Thomas Morrison); the steely determination held within agitator Frank Owen’s voice (a frighteningly forthright take by Finbar Lynch) and the bowed head of tragic old hand, Joe Philpot, destined for… well, nothing.

The script sticks to the weighty novel’s salient points, and isn’t afraid to add a dash of humour to drive its harsher points home. But, despite the masks, this is no pantomime – although it sure is liberating. The pivotal points of the Second Act don’t feel false or rushed, despite this being an adaptation of a novel running to over 1,600 pages.

If anything, writer Brenton and returning Director Christopher Morahan (he was at the helm of the 1967 BBC version, and directed The Caretaker here, to acclaim, last year) have done the trick and simplified Tressell’s story masterfully.

That’s its strength. And make no mistake, there are moments of pure beauty shining in the darkness.

It seems harsh to quibble about a splash of fake blood here, or an ailing prop dummy there, when the piece so vividly reveals characters you recognise from the streets you grew-up on – characters who are letting the best of themselves slip away.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists will not be for everyone – but its aim is true.

Reviewer, Alan O’Hare, is a member of Liverpool band, The Trestles .

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, 17 June-10 July
Liverpool Everyman Theatre, Hope Street