The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is one of my favourite books, if not the favourite, and my Granda was a painter and decorator, so I feel a little more of a connection to it than most.
The smell of paint is a powerful sensation to me, and the understanding of the value of good craftmanship that that my Grandfather placed in a job well done is a lasting impression. These things, even in an incremental sense, made me feel like I understood the characters in Robert Tressell’s book a little more.
So, it’s important to me. As a socialist it’s also a hugely important tome. A challenging book, in terms of tone and heft, it’s nonetheless perhaps the best explanation of socialism framed as fiction ever written.
There’s an added poignancy that Tressell, a decorator, died penniless and tragically young in Liverpool in the second decade of the twentieth century. He would never know the success of his book, locked in a trunk in an attic for decades.
I went to see the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at the Everyman feeling generally positive, but wary that the lengthy book would be tough to recreate on the stage.
In the final analysis, I feel my caution was well placed. This is, largely, a faithful recreation, but fails to do justice to the book.
Characters that are well-drawn in the book are often glossed over in the adaptation, particularly Easton, a generally well-meaning painter undone by circumstance, desperation and ignorance. His plight lends Tressell’s book another dimension among several other protagonists who are rather one-note.
Whereas Tressell’s antagonists are rather more Dickensian in their straight-forward villainy and selfishness, Easton gives the book a more ambiguous aspect. He’s a character from a DH Lawrence novel, rather than a Dickens novel. In the adaptation he is afforded little of the subtlety the book gives him.
The ‘Dickensian’ aspect of the baddies in the play – the town councillors, who also own all the town’s businesses and are thoroughly unpleasant chaps – is conveyed with masks so the actors can double up, but it’s a rather pantomime aspect to the proceedings.
The pacing sags in the second act too, with the action preceding the annual beano and the subsequent speeches serving to stop the momentum that builds up to this point.
However, the performances are generally excellent, particularly Nicholas Tennant as the uncomplicated Crass and Finbar Lynch as Owen, a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
As an adaptation, the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists doesn’t really convey the breadth and depth of the original novel. As a production, most things worked well.
The cast and the set are excellent, but all the good work is heavily, and bizarrely, undermined by two scenes that bookend the play, showing a modern-day couple viewing the house with an estate agent.
It’s shockingly misjudged, utterly pointless and very clumsy. It assumes that the message from Tressell’s book will not resonate with a modern-day audience unless it’s put on a plate – and it’s something of an insult to the novel and those watching.
It’s a shame, as the Everyman’s production has a lot to praise derived, as it is, from a text that must be phenomenally hard to transfer to the stage faithfully.