Thursday, 24 September 2015

Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - Bussey Building, Peckham

HOT on the heels of the Labour Party's election of the left wing MP Jeremy Corbyn as leader, comes a play which explores socialism and workers' rights.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was originally written as a book by Robert Tressell and published in 1914, three years after his death, but has been adapted for the stage by Stephen Lowe.
And now a production which has been touring the country for about two years, presented as a two hander by actors Jonathan Markwood and Neil Gore is coming to Peckham's Bussey Building between October 5 and 31.
Using instrumentation, songs of the period, movement, physicalisation, comedy and characterisation to create the spirit and clarity of the political message, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists shares with its audience a year in the life of a group of painters and decorators, as they renovate a three-storey town house for Mayor Sweater.
It traces their struggle for survival in a complacent and stagnating Edwardian England and shows what life was like for them.
These workers are the "philanthropists" who throw themselves into back-breaking work for poverty wages in order to generate profit for their masters.
For Neil so relevant are its themes and political messages to the political landscape of today that it could easily have been written much more recently.
It’s a socialist classic that is as relevant today as it was when it was written,” he says. “It describes the conditions of the workers at that time and shows quite clearly a society that was very much divided between those who had and had loads, and those who didn’t have anything at all – much like today.
Throughout the piece there is a real sense of poverty and terrible working conditions and that family life was highly pressured, again the parallels with today are there to see – the rich get richer and the poor poorer.
The setting is a house that painters and decorators are doing up all of whom are working in terrible conditions including a boy who is working for nothing as an apprentice. This was wrong 100 years ago and yet it’s still going on – it’s terrible.
So, the message within the piece is very much to get rid of capitalism and replace it with a system that’s kinder to humanity which, given the time it was originally written, was a rare and amazing thing.
Dickens hinted at it in his books and describes terrible poverty but Tressell actually laid out an alternative and made it sound appealing and that’s why the book is so famous.”
But he says despite the poverty and hardship, Neil says there is much humour to be had as well as hope for the future.
Whilst it’s undoubtedly a miserable setting, the characterisation within the book gives it life,” he says.
The banter between the main character Frank Owen and the rest the characters, all of whom we play, is great and often very funny.
What’s great is that Jonathan and I play all the characters, we sing, we dance, we play the instruments so it’s lively and hugely entertaining.
“It’s the relationship with the characters that gives it its strength and a political message that things can be better through a change in the system."
And not only does Neil think the timing of the play’s staging is right with the Labour leadership election and the potential changes to trade union rights, he says he’s excited to be bringing it to the Bussey Building.
"In London the gap between the rich and poor is massive and it seems to be appropriate to bring it to Peckham, an area which is changing massively.
"So we are really pleased we are going to be bringing it to the Bussey Building – it’s such a great space, big, industrial, the perfect place."
The staging of the play now so soon after Jeremy Corbyn’s victory is purely coincidental but Neil says he hopes the production will provoke and promote debate, particularly about workers' rights and conditions.
Part of our plan was to get the play on and invite speakers and those who might be interested in taking part in debates about the themes of the book,” he says.
With Corbyn winning so handsomely it’s quite exciting. It’s come at a great time for us.
What I’m pleased about is that there is a sense of debate that is back within the party. Like so many people I left the party years ago as I felt it didn’t represent me or my opinions but it brings back the level of debate and opposition to this government and austerity.
Anyone interested in social history or politics will get a lot out of the play. It’s fascinating and so relevant to what’s happening today, not just in the Labour movement but also in trade union and workers’ rights.
I hope people will be encouraged and inspired to come and see it and then take part in the debates afterwards.
I think it’ll be really exciting.”

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is on at The CLF Art CafĂ©, Block A, Bussey Building, 133 Rye Lane, Peckham between October 5 and 31. Tickets cost £12. Visit or call the box office on 07812 063 409.  

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