Eve Nichol - 8th October 2011
Robert Tressell's classic novel of Socialism in times of poverty and exploitation in Edwardian England was first adapted for the stage by writer Stephen Lowe back in the late 1970s. The enduring appeal of the story of a band of painters and labourers eking out a living - or not - under the oppressive rule of the greedy bosses Messers Sweater, Grinder and Hunter, meant that the 5-night run by Townsend Productions (and again penned by Lowe) at Glasgow's Citizens Theatre was sold out.
This adaptation featured just two actors playing out around 12 characters between them, as well as narrating the story and interspersing the dialogue with song on guitar, ukelele and accordian. I've never experienced such masterful transformation from one character to the next, in some cases just by swapping bowler hat (as the vindictive boss Hunter) for cloth cap (the earnest Socialist worker Harlow). The small Circle Studio theatre had the audience encircling a stage set-up of ladders, planks and the dynamic performers. 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. Audience participation even played a part when protagonist Frank Owen proves his anti-Capitalist theories with ‘The Great Money Trick'.
This was an absorbing piece of theatre and confirms that there are really great writers out there who can bring a true classic to life on the stage. It has me looking out my copy of the book and looking forward to delving back into that world so emotively described by Tressell.