views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
Hackney Empire
12th May 2012


View of the stage

Although Robert Tressel's show is a political classic, it is still just a manifesto, an almost polemic on the joys of socialism versus the exploitation of capitalism. There are very few distinct characters and at first glance, you'd imagine the message to be lost to the sands of time. Not so, as the spectacular Isango Ensemble and Mark Domford-May have managed to add a new sense of urgency and vibrancy that lends itself to their Cape Town setting.

Using racial politics as a context and not-exactly-metaphor for the class struggle of 50s Britain, the group serve to highlight further the idea of class treachery inherent in the piece, no doubt playing expertly on sympathies and guilt as the original did prior to the apartheid.

The show isn't complex in any respect. Simple staging - a tilted black stage with a few boxes and ladders here and there suffice for the mostpart. The story isn't that much - some black painters and decorators build a cinema and put on a show for white businessmen. Other than a couple of protagonists and antagonists, they are drawn in shades of grey. But this just serves the overarching message, and the performances are never less than intriguing.

The ensemble are best known for song, and when that frequently does happen, the whole story bursts into life, with cast members echoing songs from the boxes, high on ladders, down below. Yet the sadness is never far away, each song joyful yet tinged with the sadness of oppression or, in the case of a superb rendition of Fats Waller's Your Feets Too Big, out and out racism and misunderstanding comically masked in tragedy.

Still, the message remains the same - social change must come about - and come about at a cost, The heartbreaking finality to this, even with the pointed and over-egged ending, is incredibly touching. Quite frankly, it is a crime this off-West End production isn't getting more punters through its doors.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists ran at the Hackney Empire from 12th May to 3rd June 2012.

Nearest tube station: Hackney Central (Overground)

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