Interview: dramatic classic back in fashion

The cover of Penguin Books' cover of Robert Tressel's classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
The cover of Penguin Books' cover of Robert Tressel's classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

It’s good to know myself and the Arts Council share at least one prejudice.

“We’ve been accused with this play of going back to the attitudes of the 1980s but I say, don’t you get it? Things have changed. ”

Louise Townsend is as passionate in her convictions as the critically-acclaimed play she’s bringing to Harrogate Theatre from Tuesday, February 4 to Saturday, February 9 through her own eponymous company.

Back in the Thatcher era, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ theme of ‘up the workers, down with exploitation’ was still as relevant as it had been in 1914 when author Robert Tressell’s novel was first published.

Now, despite ‘austerity’ and the bankers and recession, my initial reaction on hearing that Stephen Lowe’s 1970s stage adaptation had been revived was hardly more enlightened than the Arts Council’s.

It’s not the first time Townsend has come across this attitude but she does have the perfect retort ready-it’s been a hit!

So far, her lively revival of this classic tale of a group of painter and decorators exploited by the town’s corrupt mayor has been well received everywhere on its travels.

“It’s gone down really well. We’ve sold out in almost every venue since we started touring. It got fantastic reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe and four stars in The Times.”

It’s a sign that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is more ripping yarn than dusty historical relic by the fact it was also adapted only a few years back by BBC Radio 4 for three 60-minute episodes starring the likes of Timothy Spall, Johnny Vegas, Andrew Lincoln and Paul Whitehouse.

The new production also has a top cast - Richard Stone, who played Alison Webster’s Dad in Coronation Street and the infamous Health Inspector on Emmerdale, and Neil Gore, a notable West End actor.

But, then, it has to have, for Townsend Productions are staging it as a two-hander.

In doing so, this imaginative company formed in 2010 use every trick in the book to break down the barrier between stage and audience.

“It’s unusual to do it with just two people and it’s quite a technical challenge for the cast but it’s a fantastic story with a lot of witty banter.

“The play’s got a bit of everything - live music, puppetry and painting and decorating! We’ve slightly heightened the characters, though not in an unbelievable way.”

Last year’s visit by this go-ahead theatre company sold out at Harrogate Theatre with queues stretching out the door.

If the reaction to a recent show at Richmond is anything to go by, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists looks set to be an even bigger hit locally.

“I know that Richmond people are quite conservative but we filled the theatre there. Some people in the audience were crying by the end when they realised that other people shared their beliefs.

“These are dire times and people do feel downtrodden. But they’re frightened to say what they think because they think no one else is thinking the same thing. This play shows that’s not true.”

Tickets are available at the Harogate Theatre Box Office on 01423 502116 or book online at