“Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” at Chichester

We paid £50-odd for our two tickets, and added to it nearly £9 to buy the script by Howard Brenton. We left at half-time, and would willingly have paid a little more than£25 to be out of the place. The £9 was so I could reassure myself that there wasn’t some second act bombshell which made this dire piece worth watching.

I never understand why the theatre-going middle class  bother with socialist drama, especially when it is penitentially bad. Is it guilt? Are these East-shoppers keen to beat themselves up and so they tolerate the bum and brain ache required as they endure lashings of propaganda in the cause of which they accept that the evils of capitalism can never be over-dramatised? Is it, in the case of a classic such as RTP that they feel this may be a tolerably amusing way of catching up on something they know, vaguely, they ought to have read?

Come to that, why do Chichester put this stuff on? ENRON, I can understand: it was a cracking production though its thesis was not clever. Bingo, I can understand as a last-minute thing. It is at least possible that the festival’s co-directors want to be cover both the left and right waterfronts, and put on a balanced programme. A little bit of Harewood and Stoppard, a little bit of Brenton and Bond. A nice dollop of Shaw to split the difference. Or should we put it this way: Chichester is famously (it’s true) boringly mainstream, so how about some lefty squibs to shake the place up? And some of the squibs weren’t lefty: I can’t see that Mike Poulton’s striking Wallenstein was detectably propagandist, and nor was an earlier Strindberg. But surely Pygmalian, Bingo, ENRON, and RTP in one season is a bit rich.

Anyway, RTP is a stinker. It may be that the original semi-biographical novel by Robert Tressell (published in 1914 but written at the turn of the century) is warm, witty and insightful. If so, Howard Brenton has preserved little of its tone. It concerns the layers of exploitation as a team of house-painters are made to bodge their way through the decoration of a house for a local vulgarian. It is of course true, as Tresell/Brenton say, that from the capitalists’ point of view, socialism is theft and that from the socialists’ point of view, property is theft. It is also true, as the play ruefully acknowledges, that the working classes have always been surprisingly biddable. Indeed, the only really funny moment in the evening came when the protagonist, Owen (Tressell, pretty clearly), remarked that it was easy to see why. His workmates had been giving us a specially Dogberry example of organisational chaos as they arranged to binge away what presumably should have been spent on their debts.

Here’s the oddity. The play is the most tedious set of show-and-tell tracts on class conflict as seen from really rather cardboard characters. The Masters are masked as befits their venality which was beyond pantomime. There is a small surprise, though, in the weakness and worse of the some of the play’s heroes, the working class. Owen is given some substance. One or two others briefly flicker into life. But for the most part one has the impression that it’s just as well they have the boss class to rule over them.

It is of some interest that the Tressell/Brenton take is not merely that capitalism is bad but that it achieved in the late nineteenth century a particularly bad form. They follow William Morris in celebrating the craftsman of old, and even perhaps the medieval dispensation. In this view, the nineteenth century stripped the workman of pride whilst adding to capitalist profit. But – and we see this in the play – The Masters have now become jumped-up opportunists, who have risen from the lower classes without acquiring classiness. Mr Brenton tops and tails his piece with a parvenu retailer – perhaps a supermarket area manager, perhaps the area manager of a “pound-saver” chain. This modern hate-figure is buying the old house,until his wife unaccountably takes against it.

This device may be a clue to why the middle classes don’t mind the piece. This is romantic socialism which shares their snobbishness about “trade”.

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Publication date

26 July 2010


On theatre