Last Friday I was fortunate enough to witness a performance of the sell-out show ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Merlin Productions at the Casa Theatre. Directed by Paul Strange and produced by Gerard Fitzpatrick Howkins, with a highly experienced cast playing multiple roles, including Dawn Adams, Craig McGrath, John McHugh and Robert Smith, a group of actors with much more than the odd credit between them, we were in safe hands.

The cast and crew excelled in bringing to life a challenging, albeit extremely popular story about the pitfalls of day to day working life for much of the population, depicting difficulties that resonate as much today as when the novel was first written over a hundred years ago, in the intimate, history-laden space of the Casa Theatre on Hope Street.

Before the show, I had time to grab a beer, in itself a performance worthy of mention, “I’d go in to see that play but I’ve voted conservative all my life” a regular at the bar told me, much to my surprise, before he broke out into a loud belly laugh. My partner was busy checking out the artwork at this point: photos, paintings and drawings dotted around the walls of the Casa that are testament to its origins and the key to its enduring appeal – a bar set up by sacked dockers of the 1990s dispute, the Casa wears its political heart on its sleeve.

It was a tall order from the start. Despite many attempts over the years, the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a notoriously difficult novel to turn into a play. There’s a lot of grimness, for a start, with no Hollywood happy ending, and quite a lot of political discussion about the pitfalls and machinations of capitalism – how to turn that into a bums-on-seat play that entertains and stays true to the spirit of Robert Tressell’s masterpiece? Merlin Productions showed how it’s done.

The Casa Theatre is an intimate venue, and with a simple static set on two levels, the six actors weaved their story of exploitation, corruption and camaraderie into a deft exploration of the failings and outrages of the capitalist system. Injecting moments of humour, and with some notably hilarious performances, highlights for me included the entertaining way in which the Great Money Trick was explained and the final, harrowing scene that left the audience in no doubt that they had witnessed a rare piece of theatre that expertly wielded its power to inform, challenge and entertain.


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