Trousers on for Edwardian decorating

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A NEW staging of Robert Tressell’s classic of working class literature, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, is coming to the Lantern Theatre following a successful run at the Edinburgh Festival.

Using instrumentation, songs of the period, movement, physicalisation, puppetry, comedy and characterisation to create the book’s spirit and political message, the play follows a year in the life of a group of painters and decorators, as they renovate a three-storey town house for the local mayor.

The story traces their struggle for survival in a complacent and stagnating Edwardian England. They are the “philanthropists” who carry out back-breaking work for poverty wages in order to generate profit for their masters.

For the first time Stephen Lowe’s seminal adaptation first seen in 1978 is being performed as a two-hander by Neil Gore and Fine Time Fontayne, actors with strong Sheffield connections.

In the case of Gore it also involves the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. “I was one of a group of graduates from Sheffield University who set up Metro Theatre Company to do the full seven-hander version of the play with Stephen Daldry directing,” he says.

“He had just come back from clowning in Italy – as you do - and didn’t have any work so we said, ‘do you want to direct this?’ and he did. We went on to tour it for 18 months and it was good for us. It was a good time all round.”

That was in 1985 but it had all started for Gore when he was one of four Sheffield students – Eddie Izzard was another – who took a couple of comedy shows to Edinburgh and the following year ran a fringe festival for the summer.

“It was a great way to learn,” he recalls.

“At the time I had no idea what I was going to do, I was doing a psychology degree.

“I probably wouldn’t be able to do what I did these days.”

The changing times are one of the reasons for reviving the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. “I was talking with director Louise Townsend about setting up a company to do something in response to the new Tory-led government which had come in and this came up straight away,” he explains

The size and nature of the company meant that the seven-handed version was impractical and after getting Stephen Lowe’s approval, Gore set about adapting it for two performers.

“It allows us to perform it in venues big and small.

“We play about five characters each and I have honed the script down to concentrate on two or three of the characters and what happens to them,” says Gore.

“Although there’s a lot missing from the book, and there was in the original adaptation too, we capture its essence and there’s a lot of fun in it as well. People engage with the characters who are real and we do that by showing the men having fun on their day off as well presenting the serious side of life.”

There is a strong musical element to it all with Gore, who is also musical director, playing his squeezebox and Fine Time Fontayne, erstwhile Sheffield publican’s son, Coronation Street actor and Northern Broadsides stalwart, strumming banjo.

The production, first performed to coincide with last year’s centenary anniversary of Robert Tressell’s death, remains as vivid and as relevant as when it was first published in 1914.

“Politically it has always been relevant but it’s probably more so now even than when we did it in the Eighties. Just when we thought we had left behind those Tory values they are back. It’s significant that the trade unions have been keen to have the show revived and we probably wouldn’t have been able to tour it so widely without their support and sponsorship.”

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is at the Lantern Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday.