The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Liverpool Everyman. 17-06-10

So Howard Brenton, a long time socialist firebrand, has finally got around to adapting one of socialisms best loved and most influential texts. I wonder what took him so long? It has found the perfect home in Liverpool, given the strong socialist tradition there and the fact that its author Robert Tressell was buried in an unmarked, mass paupers grave in the city. He didn’t live to see that he had achieved everything he set out to do when he hawked his manuscript round publishers unsuccessfully under an assumed name for fear of reprisals. It is very much a novel for its times, written when social justice was becoming an issue and accepted mores were being challenged by the growth of the labour movement. It is a (very long) tract with an agenda but one with enough real characters and humour to help the pill go down.

I saw the first preview performance but the production was already firing on all cylinders. It is a simple story at heart. We follow the trials and consolations of a group of journeymen workers and their bosses as they renovate an old house and as they complete it we are shown with a cold clear eye how the world works. This may sometimes be shameful and unforgiving but it is never without compassion and humour. It would be nice to think that things have changed for the better, but it all seems very familiar. The big difference of course, and it is a huge one, is that we now have a welfare cushion for those in need which protects us from complete penury. All that the characters in the play can hope for is the kindness of strangers, there is no help that is theirs by right when they fall ill or are laid off. All of them are living on a knife edge as they try to stay on the slippery pole of existence and make their way upwards. No wonder that when someone gets a chance to claw their way up a few inches they take it without looking back. Any small act of generosity is taken advantage of without a second thought. There is a clear acceptance within society that everybody has a place and few challenge it. While our sympathies have to be with the working men the play also clearly shows the cost that the system exacts on the bosses too. There are no real heroes or villains, everyone is looking out for themselves because they have no choice.

There is a lot of nice ensemble work from the cast. They are a believable group of workers and when things go wrong we feel for them terribly. The scene between Easton (played by Will Berr) and his wife Ruth (played by Laura Rees) is particularly moving. We have already seen how their money troubles are in part the result of his weakness and generosity and it is heartbreaking to watch them as they are forced to face the consequences. The most difficult part is that of Frank Owen, beautifully played by Finbar Lynch. He is a clever talented craftsman, down on his luck and forced to take on journeyman work, who tries to get his fellow workers to see that they are complicit in the system and need to think about the part which they play in it. It is difficult because it needs an actor with charisma who is able to let us know what he is thinking as he watches, works out what to do and who is on his side. Frank is a character who might be easy to dislike if it was played wrongly. Finbar Lynch gave an intelligent thoughtful performance and I could really see the wheels of his mind at work and feel the warmth of his compassion. The money trick is a classic scene and it was played with conviction and humour.

The direction, by Christopher Morahan, was great, full of ideas and fast paced. I liked the use of cleverly designed masks for the bosses, making them symbols of a corrupt system to set against the more personal view of the working men. The set, on two levels, was a mainly realistic view of the old house that they were renovating and it was a very powerful visual image to see it come back to life and smarten up as they worked.

The Everyman is about to experience a £28 million redevelopment. The new Everyman will be “celebratory, inclusive and very green” and fit for a “uniquely cultural city”. You can’t argue with that, and I wouldn’t try to, but all the same I am glad that I got there in time to sit on a battered red seat in a hot auditorium clutching a pint of shandy in a plastic glass. The auditorium is a wonderful space. Some theatres develop a patina in exactly the same way as a fine old piece of oak furniture does, and the Everyman is one of them. It has a proud history and the building makes you aware of the performers and audiences who have gone there before you. I think that I can trust Liverpool not to forget it, but along with the gains that a brand new “vibrant creative hub” for the city will bring there will also be a loss.


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