Popular story told with a touch of music hall magic

Neil Gore in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
Neil Gore in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, the story of a group of downtrodden Edwardian painters and decorators that became a classic novel beloved by socialists and trade unionists is now in a new version on stage.

Townsend Productions have put together a new version of Robert Tressell’s novel that played to packed houses all over the country but this time it’s a solo show starring Neil Gore.

The book charts a year in the lives of a group of painters and decorators in the town of Mugsborough at the turn of the last century. Haunted by fears of unemployment, the men struggle to keep their jobs at any cost but, in the course of events, some of them begin to realise that their condition of miserable poverty is neither ‘natural’ or ‘just’.

These workers, the ‘philanthropists’ of the title, who throw themselves into back-breaking work for poor wages to generate profit for their masters are joined by an artist, Owen.

His spirited attacks on the dishonesty of capitalism, along with his socialist vision, highlight their workplace exploitation and the inequality in society as a whole.

The most famous famous section The Great Money Trick, where Owen uses some simple props during a meal break to show his fellow workers that money only makes the bosses richer, while working men remain poor and insecure in their jobs.

Neil said: “It’s the second time around for the production but it’s very different. It’s me on my own this time.

“We took the original adaptation by Stephen Lowe for eight actors down to two last time and then thought it could work as a one-man show.

“I often get asked to do sections of it like The Great Money Trick and that works as a thing on its own very well. There are sections where more than one person speaks that could work as a single person.

“For someone to do it as a one-man show is a bit of a challenge but worth having a go.

“We haven’t relooked at the whole thing and started from scratch. I’m not sure it’s ever been done before. There might be a good reason for that! We’ll find out in due course.”

There’s no doubt that this much-treasured story is in safe hands, though.

Townsend have brought many working-class stories to life with great success, such as We Are The Lions, Mr Manager, the story of the 1970s Grunwick strike that toured extensively in this area last year.

Neil said the reason for this new version was to have a show that could adapt to any size of venue. They are often asked to appear at community venues for trade unions and other organisations.

He said: “As soon as you pare it down, you have to be creative in how you do it.

“We’re taking it back to its Edwardian roots. It’s full of entertainment with magic tricks and with a magic lantern show.”

The show also features music hall-style songs.

Neil said: “The Lantern Theatre in Sheffield is the ideal venue for it. It’s got that complete Victorian proscenium arch on the stage. It will sit well and fit brilliantly into that space.

“We’re playing some pubs and big theatres as well.”

Neil said of the novel: “The main thing about the book is that it’s a political book. It’s probably the most famous political novel ever. It stands out in terms of the politics in the time it was written. It’s as relevant now as when it was written.”

Next up, Townsend are tackling Rouse Ye Women, a play about the successful 1910 strike by women chain makers in the Black Country, led by Mary Macarthur and the National Federation of Women Workers.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is at the Lantern Theatre, Sheffield from October 3 to 5. 

Booking: www.ticketsource.co.uk/thelanternsheff​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​