Stage version of Tressell’s classic narrative

From L-R Neil Gore and Richard Stone in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
From L-R Neil Gore and Richard Stone in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

The two-hander version of Robert Tressell’s celebrated tale, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, is returning to the Lantern Theatre next week.

Using instrumentation, songs of the period, movement, physicalisation, comedy and characterisation to create the spirit and clarity of the political message, the play shares with its audience a year in the life of a group of painters and decorators, as they renovate a three-storey townhouse for Mayor Sweater. It traces their struggle for survival in a complacent and stagnating Edwardian England. These workers are the “philanthropists” who throw themselves into back-breaking work for poverty wages in order to generate profit for their masters.

Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, has become a classic of working-class literature since its first publication in 1914.

Stephen Lowe’s version of the story was first seen in 1978, when Joint Stock Theatre Company toured the country playing to packed houses. The play was revived at the Half Moon Theatre, London in 1983 and again for a touring production by the Birmingham Rep in 1991.

Townsend Productions revived it in 2011, the centenary of Tressell’s death, in the belief that the themes and style of the piece are even more relevant these days.

Joining Neil Gore on the tour of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists this time is Sheffield actor-musician Richard Stone.

He has replaced the unavailable Finetime Fontayne, though he admitrs he can’t match his proficiency on the banjo.

“I was handed a squeezebox and tried to get something out of that,” says the performer who has lived in Sheffield since 1977 and worked many times at the Crucible as actor, director and musician/composer.

“The idea was to keep the music non-electric and Neil plays the ukelele. But the show involves quite a lot of singing.”

It’s a complex challenge as an actor, he says, with multiple characters and scene changes. “I never expected to be working puppets,” he adds.

“Two people do everything. We change the lights and do the stage management, it’s not just acting. the lighting board is on stage because the idea is that nothing is hidden about the show.

“You don’t see that type of theatre so much now as you did back in the Seventies and Eighties - people playing multiple roles, singing and dancing, and driving the van.

“We are taking it to arts centres and village halls as well as theatres. We’ve been to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It works anywhere,” says Stone.

“For a lot of people the book is special. A woman in Colchester came up after the show and said it had been very emotional for her because it was the bible to her father who had died a few years ago.

The response has been fantastic with audiences cheering and clapping which is very gratifying.”

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is at the Lanteern Theatre on Monday and Tuesday.