The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, about a group of painters and decorators and their struggle for survival in a complacent and stagnating Edwardian England, has become a classic of working-class literature since its first publication in 1914. This brilliant stage version by Stephen Lowe, the author ofTouched, was first seen in 1978, when Joint Stock Theatre Company toured the country playing to packed houses. The play was revived at the Half Moon Theatre, London in 1983 and again for a touring production by the Birmingham Rep in 1991.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was first performed by the Joint Stock Theatre Company in Plymouth on 14 September 1978, in a production which subsequently toured the country.

ragged trousered_poster (33K)
  • Bruce Alexander - EASTON/LINDEN/GRINDER
  • Christian Burgess - SAWKINS/MAYOR SWEATER
  • Peter-Hugo Daly - CRASS/REV BELCHER
  • Kenny Ireland - PHILPOTT/RUSHTON
  • Fred Pearson - OWEN/DIDLUM
  • Harriet Walter - BERT/ELSIE/MRS SWEATER
  • Mark Wing-Davey -HARLOW/LETTUM
All the cast, except Peter-Hugo Daly and Fred Pearson, play Hunter.

Directed by William Gaskill
Designed by Peter Hartwell
Lighting by Andy Phillips
Production Manager Jon Cadbury
Stage and Company Manager Alison Ritchie
Lighting operated by Lolly Schenk
Assistant Stage Manager Danny Boyle
Artistic Director Max Stafford-Clark
General Manager Graham Cowley

First performance: Plymouth Arts Centre, 14 September 1978 Subsequently: Riverside Studios, London, 12 October 1978.

The play was revived at the Half Moon Theatre, London, on 13th July 1983, with the following cast: Trevor Cooper, David Fielder, Bob Goody, Josie Lawrence, Bill Thomas, Ken Morley, and Stephen Tiller. Directed by John Adams.

Metro Theatre toured their production for over two years (1985-7) directed by Stephen Daldry.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was revived by the Birmingham Rep. in a touring production in February 1991, Directed by John Adams and also toured to Birmingham Alabama USA.

1998. A co-production with Stratford East and Liverpool Playhouse was directed by Stephen Daldry.


For Philanthropists, we spent a month painting and decorating a disused warehouse in Plymouth. The mornings were devoted to painting, the afternoons to working on the play. Towards the end of the workshop, we improvised the works outing - the annual beano - that forms a central episode in Tressell's novel. As it turned out, the evening was to have a decisive influence on our vision of the play. Bill Gaskill, Peter Hartwell, the designer, the actors and myself were joined by Max Stafford-Clark and two of the builders working on the conversion of the warehouse - Fred the carpenter and Pete the paint. Our hosts were the students and staff of the Theatre Department at Dartington College. The following account is taken from letters I wrote during the workshop.

At lunch we raided Ross's, an ex-army surplus shop, and Oxfam, for old suits, shirts, to wear at the beano, went through the songs again, and the rough order of the scenes, dressed up and waited to be picked up in a van. We each took a character from the book which we were to `play' for the evening. We were uncertain as to how things would work out at Dartington, in their beautiful dining-hall - all we planned was that we would have the meal, make the speeches and sing the song, and take it from there.

When we arrived, we were met at the main entrance to the Great Hall by an old lady who welcomed us to her hotel. We stood, confused by the splendour, desperately holding on to our hats, then entered the dining-room where four wenches, in white lace aprons, were waiting (these somewhat threw the improvisation for some of us by their sheer beauty). The lady at the door was, it turned out later, the wardrobe mistress; the girls, first-year drama students who had been told no more than to arrive and serve the mad Joint Stock their meal, in period Edwardian.

We sat down to dinner, the men at one end of a long table under the main chimney; Hunter (Chris Burgess) stranded, alone, at the far end. Rushton (Bill Gaskill) was in the middle of a second table, with some students and Grinder (Max Stafford-Clark) who appeared a little later, not in costume. The second table was taken up by college staff. A barrel of beer had been laid on for the men and Hunter was apparently drinking lemonade which he obtained by slipping the waitress money.

The meal was soup, sausage and tomato pie with leeks and potatoes, and a variety of desserts, jellies, etc. Oddly, characters began to slip from caricature to character (with only the occasional breakout) as the drink had its effect. It was relatively good-humoured among the men.

Then Hunter started the speech, and Chris really did look like the description in the book. Crass (Fred Pearson) gave the accounts, and the surplus to be given out among the men was greeted with cheers. Barrington (Mark Wing-Davey) and I (as Owen) stayed out for the 'For he's a jolly good fellow' for Rushton and Grinder, and we both felt extreme disgust, but stayed quiet. Then Grinder made his speech, attacking the socialists, which the men enjoyed, goading us to speak. Suddenly, Barrington rose and began his defence. Slowly, carefully, with the strength of suppressed rage. The evening became electric. Everyone remained silent - perhaps too silent. The defence was clear, powerful. I was deeply moved and, towards the end, was able to look around, with some pride in my beliefs as Owen.

At the end, Crass broke in with 'No more speech-making' and the singing began. He sang the Tory work song 'Work Boys Work .. which everyone bar the socialists joined in happily. I was angry with Philpott (Kenny Ireland) and Semi-Drunk (Peter-Hugo Daly), who had expressed some socialist leanings, for not realising what they were doing. Then Mrs Payne (Harriet Walter) stepped forward to sing 'Who Will Buy My Flowers?', accompanied by Semi-Drunk on the piano. This was a sentimental Victorian song which, in rehearsals, we had all done cod crying to, but now there was none of that. The reality of this song moved us all - I felt it was a good description of all our states, and if only we listened, people would change, others were genuinely moved at what before seemed only trite pathos. We joined in the chorus and the harmonies felt beautiful. It was the first moment of real beauty in the evening.

Semi-Drunk tried to sing 'Put Me Among the Girls' and was shouted down (he had in fact started the singing with 'Old Bull and Bush'). Then, accompanied by Barrington on a £3000 violin the college had found, Payne (Bruce Alexander) sang 'Don't Go Out Tonight, Dear Father', a song which no one could take seriously, which went on and on as intended in the book. But it was cod, it was too acted, i.e. a man singing badly and boringly - a dreary song with gestures. Our reactions as a group, instead of being spontaneous and diverse, were calculated and forced. Philpott then sang 'The Roast Beef of Old England', forgetting almost all the words (quite genuinely) much to the amusement of the lads. Crass rounded off with a political comic song, 'Two Lovely Black Eyes' in which we all joined the chorus.

This then was the end of the songs we had rehearsed. According to the book we should now have gone outside to play games, walk round the grounds, etc. Instead, the evening took an unexpected course, led off by the warmth of Fred's personality. After a pause, he suddenly began to sing a Geordie song, in one of the loveliest voices I ever heard. Quietly, individually, others began to sing, moving somewhere along the dividing line between character and their own identity (gradually letting their characters drift away from them, slowly revealing the group as a group of actors). I forget now the songs that were sung, but everything moved quietly, unforced, from one to the next, some funny, some gentle - nothing boisterous, nothing disruptive, no one shouting anyone down. Just the group enjoying and relishing the talents of its fellow members. Ken stood up and did a monologue for the North (as Bill and I could not think of anything) of the little lad who gets ate by the lion. The waitresses sang a First World War song, beautifully, and one of them recited a monologue. Scottish songs were sung, and the hymns we had sung in rehearsal - 'The Living Stream' and 'Work, for the Night is Coming' were sung so beautifully I felt like crying. Peter-Hugo played two of his compositions on the piano. Mark sang two revolutionary modern songs from a musical on Carpenter. Peter Hartwell did a Canadian song. During all this Hunter stayed in character, suddenly leaping up to sing the National Anthem. At first, he was paid lip service to by the men, led by Crass, and tried to sing the first line of a song, demanding that the men joined in. We let him carry on on his own until he could remember no more. He would return to his seat, jump again, stumble out a few demented, drunken words, and collapse back. No one minded. He was ignored, powerless, the men were together. What significance did he have? He was just a sad, black clown. The company accepted him without malice, stripping him of power. It was the most telling image of the night. The pauses in between songs and monologues were silent, reverential, full of warmth. I went to the lav at one point and missed what was apparently another high spot. Pressure had been put on Fred the carpenter to do a number representing the South. He refused, and Peter-Hugo stood up and, quietly, without a trace of cockney, recited a Thomas Hardy poem. Everyone was thunderstruck. This, if possible, was topped by Pete the paint, who suddenly broke into a song about Plymouth and Drake, in a beautiful bass voice, managing about six verses before he forgot it. It didn't matter. We all now were one group.

Eventually, in one last attempt to gain control, Hunter discovered a ball and led us all out into the spreading darkness on the lawn, to play ball games. All characters bar his were now gone. We stood in the beauty of the trees, as he disappeared across the lawn, clutching onto a young waitress, her white half hidden by his black as they faded across the lawn.

At home, we discussed with Bill the night's happenings. He is over the moon with it. So am I. How can we use it? Got to sleep around 3.00, but awoke at 5.00 feeling less than well, staggering around the place. Had visions of blood poisoning (of the alcoholic type). Decided to go on the waggon for a bit.
There's a play here somewhere….
The final sequence to the beano is Chris's story. We all assumed he had made it. However, it transpired that, through an alcoholic haze, he heard the bus moving on, and ran out across the lawn after it. This sad, bowler-hatted figure chasing it down the perfect drive. Unable to catch up, someone told him Pete was still around so he wandered around the college crying out his name, forlornly. Pete, who was tucked up in bed by that time, did not heed the call. Chris finally slept in some student's house, rising at 6.00 for the three mile walk into town to catch the 7.00 to Plymouth. What with his hangover and his strange clothes, the vision of this man slinking through the small town at the crack of dawn is one to conjure with. The bus took one and a half hours to get to Plymouth (a distance of some twenty-five miles) and from there he bolted to the site to get there for nine o'clock. However, when he arrived there no one turned up. We had, in fact, made a call that night for 11.00 at the rehearsal room.

Stephen Lowe
(Edited extract from Letters from a Workshop, Dartington Theatre Papers, 1979)

Danny Boyle ( film director) on The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

'This is Bill Gaskill.'

For a drama graduate, fresh out of Bangor, landing the assistant stage manager's job on Philanthropists was like stowing away on Concorde. No amount of paint swilling dampened the excitement. I'd read about Bill Gaskill in books.

`Actually, Bill's work always catches the critics napping.'

I don't believe it. The actors are scared, that's all. The tour settles it. The carriage chase is brilliantly staged, precarious acrobatics atop what were tables only seconds before. In Hull's Transport and General Workers' Union hall, packed with retired trade unionists, the workers' betrayal by the emerging Labour Party is presented with all the qualities of a good night out. The London run produces a persistent and mysterious fan. High above the evening in the vacant sound box a shadowy figure returns two or three times a week. And each time at the same point of the play. The carriage chase.

Having toured it for months, I could watch Newsnight instead, remember the OAPs stamping their feet in excited recognition, see my dad forgetting this was a theatre, realise the Guardian's second stringer was snoozing off his interval and ask who is the secret figure studying the scene?

`That's Peter Gill.'

Taken from Rob Ritchie (ed.), The Joint Stock Book: The Making of a Theatre Collective, Methuen, 1987


Stephen Lowe has scripted a version of Robert Tressell's Socialist classic that is a model of adaptation, dramatic emphasis and sheer theatrical magic.'
Financial Times

'a political winner - Stephen Lowe's excellent adaptation' Morning Star

It is an independent work of great skill and integrity putting the original to the test of physical action and personal experience... it is sheer pleasure to watch this lucid, beautifully organised account of the roots of our present industrial chaos.'
The Times

'It takes on a stage life unexampled among stage versions of novels.'

'Its success lies in the way it captures the great heart of the author, which beats as strongly through the play as through the book.'
Sunday Times

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is published by Methuen, 1983


The production features strongly in Harriet Walter's biography Other People's Shoes as well as in Sandy Craig's Dreams and Deconstructions; Alternative Theatre in Britain, Rob Ritchies' The Joint Stock Book with essays by Stephen Lowe and the then assistant director (and now film director) Danny Boyle, Baz Kershaw's essay in Theatre Quarterly as well as in David Harker's Robert Tressell- The real story of Ragged Trousered etc.. cf for list of other articles, reviews etc. 

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