Portraying capitalist injustice

Submitted by AWL on 6 October, 2015 - 4:56 Author: Sandra Robinson

The touring theatre company, Townsend Productions, are now on the road with their excellent play, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, based on Robert Tressell’s novel, first published in 1914.

The play is the latest in a string of politically committed and successful plays, including ‘United We Stand’ (the story of the Shrewsbury pickets), ‘We Will Be Free!’ (the Tolpuddle Martyrs story) and ‘On the Road to Freedom’ (a choir and theatre community project).

The cast portray the novel’s central message of the brutality and injustice of capitalism whilst remaining true to the story’s characterisations, class depictions and comic moments. This is all the more impressive as the cast comprise just two actors; Neil Gore, co-founder of Townsend Productions with Louise Gore, and Jonathan Markwood. Their skills, passion, energy and humour combined with creative use of props, music and puppets(!) results in a highly enjoyable as well as thought-provoking production.

The story is set in the Edwardian era and remains as relevant today as ever. The Great Money Trick (in which money is demonstrated as the cause of poverty) continues to be played out globally on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.

Tressell set out a valuable socialist critique, providing an explanation of inequity and its resulting poverty, division and despair though he is less clear about exactly how to overcome it. The central character, Frank Owen, tries to convince his fellow decorators to stand up to the ruling classes and capitalism but is ultimately unsuccessful in his endeavours.

Nonetheless, this remains an inspiring socialist classic. Tressell’s work was credited in helping Labour win the General Election of 1945. Tony Benn said of Tressell, “He gave us a torch to pass on from generation to generation. He gave us a lamp to light the way”.

In Townsend Productions’ adaptation, it will continue to inspire audiences and activists.

• Further information: Townsend Productions @raggedtour