Dan Glazebrook - 13th February 2012
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is the classic novel of English working-class life, based on Robert Tressell's experience as a painter and decorator in Edwardian Hastings. Now legendary, and deemed by some to have been responsible for Labour's 1945 election victory as soldiers and sailors eagerly absorbed its socialist message, the novel has seen a number of adaptations for the stage.
This particular version directed by Louise Townsend transforms a play with eight main characters into a two-man show and triumphantly overcomes that potential obstacle via some masterful characterisation. Both Rodney Matthew and Neil Gore are superb comic actors and switch seamlessly between the parts and even share one role - the miserly foreman, Hunter - depending on who he is talking to at the time. There's more than a little Monty Python in the delivery, with Matthew sounding uncannily like Eric Idle on occasion, and the voices and facial expressions are often hilarious. But none of this detracts either from the gravity of the dire situation of the men nor from the urgency of the political message.
The men working for the painting and decorating firm Rushton and Co are renovating the house of Mayor Sweater. They are the philanthropists of the title, selflessly slogging their guts out for the benefit of their masters. The protagonist Frank Owen tries, largely in vain, to convince his fellow workmates that the capitalist system is the source of all their woes and needs to be done away with.
What this adaptation brings to the fore is the ongoing tactical debate between Owen and Harlow, one of the few who sympathises with Owen's viewpoint, but who is much more practically minded about how to address the problem. Owen's class-struggle politics sees Harlow's approach as far too compromising - "Your wish for peace is choking us all" he tells him - and the differences come to a head in the final scene. Harlow becomes involved in the newly formed Labour Party, throws his weight behind its election campaign and attempts to persuade Owen to do the same. Owen is sceptical, arguing that once you start to play "their" parliamentary game, you've lost as the compromises involved will spell the death of the movement.
Watching this discussion 100 years later it is hard to avoid the conclusion that ultimately Owen was right. There's much else relevant to today's context. Cameron's "all in it together" bullshit finds its pre-echo in Mayor Sweater's ridiculous speech about how "the masters need the men, and the men need the masters." Owen's performance of "The Great Money Trick" - the simplest demonstration of capitalist crisis yet performed - is more timely now than ever. Witty, fast-paced and hard-hitting, this is exactly how agit-prop should be done.