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Edinburgh Fringe 2012

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Townsend Productions and Unite Scotland

Genre: Drama


 Assembly George Square


Low Down

 Entertaining and accessible two-handed version of one of the most enduring political novels of the early 20th century. Though rooted in the era it was written in many of its themes still resonate today. Frank Owen, is a socialist who believes  the capitalist system is the  source of the poverty he sees all around him. In vain he tries to convince his fellow workers that his world view is a call to action that can change both their and their children’s futures.


 Between them Fine Time Fontayne and Neil Gore play all the characters in this joyous adapation of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

The book is one of the most vivid descriptions of the plight of the working man in the early part of the 20th Century. We follow as their lives became ever more precarious while the world steadily industrializes around them. The characters remain paralysed unable to see how their lives can ever change so make do with the status quo.   

Though written around 1911 the themes are startlingly relevant today – a work-force being eaten away as their roles are taken over by machinery (see outsourcing); their political apathy in the face of their own destruction (see voting patterns of the last 20 years).

In many ways this piece harks back to the political touring theatre of the 1970s and early 1980s such as Scotland’s Communicado which in turn harked back to the political subtexts of music hall and pantomime. Utilizing some of the same structures the piece is a glorious mix of dialogue, storytelling, songs and even puppetry. A version of the music hall classic ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’ was  happily sung along to the day I saw this show.

Tressell’s ‘The Great Money Trick’ is gloriously brought to life on stage with the help of two volunteers from the audience.     

The set at first glance seems a chaotic mix of boxes and planks but is integrated seamlessly into the narrative both as props but also scene setting subtitles along the way. There is even use of an old fashioned slide projector (no computers here).

The narrative races along and both actors are marvellous zipping from character to character, able to improvise when a bit of set misbehaves or one of the audience members invited on stage decides to include some of his own dialogue.    

If I have a small criticism it is that it takes a while to differentiate the characters (and I’m familiar with the book) and that Hunter (the works foreman) has a bit of the ‘Shylock’ about the characterization of both actors – but these are small gripes in what was a thoroughly entertaining 90 minutes.  

This kind of show is in many ways what Assembly does best in its drama programme, well produced brilliantly acted theatre of substance, and the lunchtime audience lapped it up.