Friday, 28 October 2011

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - Live and Local - Heanor Baptist Church - 13 October 2011

This stage adaptation of the  book by Robert Tressell (a pseudonym of Robert Croker aka Robert Noonan) was presented by Townsend Productions in association with Hertford Theatre and sponsored by various trade unions. This particular production was one of a number promoted by Live and Local, an organisation devoted to bringing us "surprising art in surprising places". 

 David Howe, pastor of Heanor Baptist Church, is very much to be commended on involving himself with the Live and Local project.

As regards the performance itself, I think anyone who saw this two-man performance by Neil Gore and the splendidly-named Fine Time Fontayne would agree they performed with passion and pzazz, and that the production as a whole showed wit and imagination.

In an unusual twist, the performance, written by Stephen Lowe, was punctuated with renditions of some of the  music of the time  - music hall songs, and Chapel and Temperance Hall material. The downside of this innovative approach was that it  made the performance rather lengthy and at times it was unclear how the music related to the play, if at all. I`d have to say in fairness that some of the religious songs worked well in context, but - and this is a matter of personal taste - I soon grew tired of the music hall material. Quite frankly, if I never hear another song about pickled onions I`ll be a happy man !

Another problem lay in the decision to put on the play as a two man show. With two actors playing quite an array of different characters, it was quite easy to become confused as to which character was which.

I`ve never read the book, so can`t comment on how accurately the play represented the author`s views. I did feel that it raised more questions than answers.

One character, a particularly grasping and exploitative  businessman, becomes unhinged as his business begins to struggle and eventually kills himself. Does the author intend to imply that the man is in his own way `a victim of the system` just as much as his downtrodden staff ? We never find out.

At another point, Tressell`s character Frank Owen, believed by many to represent the author himself, reflects on his inability to convert his colleagues to his brand of socialism, referring disconsolately to the fact that `they` are unreceptive to his views. "Who`s `they` ?" his friend/workmate asks. This is played as a genuine question (which goes unanswered), but one could wonder if this exchange was intended to stress Owen`s sense of separation from the very people he intends to motivate.

Elsewhere, Owen/Tressell rejects both conventional trade unionism and the newly-formed Labour Party as potential vehicles for progress. What approach does he favour ? Apart from one vague reference to "taking over the whole works" ( The machinery of the state or literally the workplace ? We never find out.) we are left with no real clue. Given the times he lived in, he could equally have been an old-style communist, an anarchist, a utopian socialist  or a believer in co-operatively owned businesses. He could have favoured change by peaceful means or by revolution. For what it`s worth, my educated guess would be that he was a utopian socialist in the William Morris tradition who believed in achieving change simply by the propogation of his ideas, which would explain why his inability to make converts was so painful to him. 

The play ends with an appeal to solidarity, which in some ways is fair enough -  every worthwhile progressive movement brings together people of differing points of view - but one was left with the sense that Owen and his colleagues don`t actually agree on ends or means. I understand that Tressell went to his grave a disappointed man, so this is probably accurate.

The performance was warmly received, and a lot of the credit for that has to go to the two energetic performers.

It has to be said that my personal criticisms were probably not shared by most of the audience, so you can if you want take my views with a pinch of salt. More importantly, if you live in or visit Derbyshire, Warwickshire and/or Staffordshire, look out for the works of Live and Local ( ) - they deserve our support !

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