Venue: Harrogate Studio Theatre
Director: Louise Townshend
Writer: Stephen Lowe
Robert Tressell’s early twentieth century book was published posthumously by his daughter. Boiling down Robert Tressell’s originally 1,600 page novel to a play with a cast of two seems a barbarically reductive crime by writer Stephen Lowe. But with an inimitable flair the duo solidly perform a crowd of characters in the small Studio space, switching rapidly between a gaggle of roles with audacious panache.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is set in Edwardian times, following a philanthropic group of painters and decorators trying to eke out a living. Harsh living conditions and a pittance of pay loom large the threat of destitution and the workhouse. Their plight arrests the sympathies of the audience by juxtaposition with their smug top-hatted bourgeois bosses, who leer and creep like beetles with vividly sinister movements. The subject of their work, refitting Mayor Sweater’s house and gilding it with gold leaf, is a constant reminder of their belittled state.
Richard Stone and Neil Gore perform admirably, slipping through a grand total of eleven characters with ease. To the unwitting audience member the technique takes a while to acclimatize to, and senses reel at the unfamiliar morphing of voices and outfits. There was, however, a disappointing absence of ragged trousers in the costume, their bottom half neatly intact.
Confusion rooted in the crowded characters of the couple clears to an extent as the action progresses, but it can still be difficult to recognize which characters are which. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be borne along with the amicable enthusiasm Gore and Stone exude.
The caricature-style acting leads to a pantomime-like atmosphere, a clowny affair delighting in the art of its own shambles, which evolved considerably as the play developed. There was audience involvement such as stealing two unsuspecting but joyfully compliant viewers into the “Great Money Game”; and directing several sing-a-longs to some of the duo’s cornucopia of musical numbers, most memorably something I believe was called “Two Lovely Black Eyes”. This forced an intriguingly strange lifting of the illusion gauze we had complacently been gazing at, heightening the senses and tugging the audience into the rhythm and camaraderie of Gore and Stone’s antics. A warm feeling akin to that of the domestic empathy seeps into the audience, and the peculiar feeling that I wanted to hold hands and sing with every audience member.
This unique familiarity is undermined by convoluted action, and exacerbated by the whirl of same-faced character and the inexplicable intervention of a puppet show which may have been a reference to something in the book. It is easy for the attention to drift, and the momentum of the first half trailed behind in the second.
It is a play of exceptional character, one I would recommend seeing for the delectable array of form usage alone. The socialist message is a trite but digestible one, that does ring true with perennial reverberations for many today.