Preview: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Neil Gore has not only adapted socialist novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists for stage but plays all the roles himself – as well as singing and doing magic tricks

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“The hierarchy; petty and amusing rivalry; good-natured humour and banter; hostility to political change; and the acceptance of greed as inevitable and a natural way of life.” These are the characteristics of the modern workplace, according to writer and actor Neil Gore, who has cleverly managed to evade such dynamics by heading out on his own, in a one-man performance of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Robert Tressell’s novel charts a year in the lives of a group of painters and decorators in the town of Mugsborough at the turn of the twentieth century. Haunted by fears of unemployment, the men struggle to keep their jobs at any cost but some begin to realise that their condition of miserable poverty is neither natural or just. The book is a passionate defence of socialist ideas and one of the first truly imaginative portrayals of life written from a working-class perspective.

“It was published originally in 1914 but the themes explored in the book are still relevant today,” says Gore. “When Tressell wrote the book, Britain was on the brink of war and the majority of the population were living in a very tight economy, with low wages and appalling working and living conditions.

“Questions were being raised about the reliability of those thought to be masters and the capitalist system was under scrutiny by those who considered it responsible for massive and growing inequalities in society.” These themes, Gore believes, will resonate with many working and living under our current regime of austerity, “where wages and working conditions are squeezed and where many struggle for the basic necessities of life in the midst of spiralling rises in the cost of living and housing.

“Meanwhile the richest in society just seem to be getting richer. Recent government policy seems to be driving us backwards into the vast inequalities that existed in Tressell’s time,” he says.

For the first time this new version of the play will be presented by a single performer. And not only will Gore play all 10 roles, he’ll be performing political conjuring tricks and live music – singing and playing a range of instruments, including the guitar, ukulele and squeeze box. An impressive centrepiece will be an Edwardian magic lantern show.

Gore performed the show with Townsend Productions as a two-man act in 2011-2015 to much praise, including from director Ken Loach. Now he and director Louise Townsend have revised the production.

“Any theatrical interpretation of the book has its challenges but a one-man show of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is extremely demanding because it’s a huge, dense tome to condense into something meaningful. But it guarantees ultimate accessibility to all types of venues and audiences,” says Gore.

But why revisit something he’s toured so extensively already?

“I always come back to it – it’s a default position, an eye-opener, a life-changer. The more people that can be introduced to this most important book the better, and a touring play that can express some of the intense views and arguments, as well as the amazing array of characters, relationships and settings, has always been a highly charged and accessible way of doing exactly that.”

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is touring on 28 Sept-May 2019, including venues in Sheffield, Huddersfield, Liverpool, Leeds, Barton-on-Humber, Salford and Harrogate among others (townsendproductions.org.uk)

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