Nothing Changes - Ragged Trousered Philanthropists of 2015

Mon 27th – Tue 28th April 2015

reviews

Jeremy Barclay

at 12:48 on 29th Apr 2015

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Published in 1914, Robert Tressel’s Socialist polemic ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist’ became a modern, yet neglected, British classic that was moving, intellectual, and bitter. By comparison, John Basset’s reimagining of the book, ‘Nothing Changes: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists of 2015’ is an awkward adaptation of the novel that suffers from unnecessary gimmicks and weak acting.

‘Nothing Changes’, like its 1914 counterpart, centres around the lives of four decorators working on an expensive house in England. The decorators, who work for minimum wage and are forced to cut corners by their foreman, Hunter (Matt Nation), spend their tea breaks discussing political theory in various guises. The main character, Bob Owen (played competently by John Gregor), champions the Socialist cause throughout. Gregor was largely faithful to his literary counterpart in the novel, and he delivered the Socialist dogma with a fervour that was worthy of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) adverts that adorned the programme. Moments and performances such as this, where the play stuck close to the novel, were its strongest.

Regrettably, the innovations of the play prevent its potential success. Its musical interludes sound like lazy Billy Bragg covers, poorly sung with unimaginative music and toe-curling choreography. At times, the cast even partook in an ill-advised homage of ‘Stomp’, using paint tins and wallpaper brushes as percussion instruments. The music wasn’t the only lazy thing about this play – in some cases, the writing was noticeably poor; lines such as ‘he died lonely and alone’ do a disservice to Tressel’s excellent prose, and gave the play’s important message an amateurish feel.

That is not to say that this play was not at times entertaining. John Basset’s performance as slimy suck-up Crass was a fun relief to Gregor’s monologues, and the attempt to increase focus on the female perspective of the novel through Ruth (Josie Young) was a good and progressive idea that unfortunately fell flat.

Whilst great effort has gone into creating a fun, propagandist atmosphere within the theatre, with badges sporting Socialist slogans sold alongside the programme (modelled roughly on ‘The Observer’ newspaper), ‘Nothing Changes’ attempts to bring ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ up to date without bringing its staging up to scratch. I suggest that prospective audiences save their money for a trip to their local bookstore to purchase ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ for themselves, a 650 page Socialist diatribe is significantly less punishing than a single chorus of this ham-fisted musical.

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emily quinn

at 09:56 on 30th Apr 2015

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'Nothing Changes' is promoted as a modern day adaptation of Tressell's infamous socialist novel 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists', purporting to highlight the similarities between the 19th Century and Modern Day Britain. Despite emphasising the originality of their script, the play is strongest when it adheres most strongly to the book. The highlights of this play are the "lectures" main character Owen (John Gregor) gives to his colleagues. The lectures, on the great money trick, and how money creates poverty, are directly based on the lectures in the novel, but subtly adapted by Gregor, emphasising that 'Nothing Changes' without forcing the connection too strongly. Mr Hunter (Matt Nation) is also, thankfully, subtly portrayed, Nation choosing to act the "bad guy" of the piece as passive aggressive, he is intimidating without being exaggerated. Which is more than can be said for Crass, who is so completely over-acted he's like a pantomime villain. He is occasionally funny, is great comic relief for how depressing the rest of the play is, but some of his scenes, like the newspaper chase with Owen, are too kitsch and last for far too long. The songs which litter the piece also suffer from being too long. Spaniel In the Works advertised that the piece featured music from Stiff Little Fingers among others, what I failed to realise beforehand is that they literally meant the music, putting their own original lyrics over the top. Although there were a few lines where too many words had been shoved in, this could be forgiven if the company hadn't used the entire song, each time. The actors were all decent singers, but four minutes is far too long, and it just became awkward. The actors themselves were, apart from the two already mentioned, awkward and wooden. Attempting to increase poignancy, Jack and Ruth shared a storyline in which both had lost loved ones in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Ruth's narrative was clumsy and unemotionless, and Jack's narrative was forced. I suspect the dialogue didn't help them, but there was something faintly ridiculous about Jack's death, clearly modeled on Lear as he clutched a photo of his loved ones, ruined by the strained attempts at emotion behind cries of 'Linda!' Ruth, too, was a bizarre character. A one-dimensional character whose one definitive characteristic until the end of the play being that she loves her son, decides to try and commit suicide. This plot point seemed tacked on, it was a complete farce given that her main reason for suicide being that she couldn't afford another child. Apparently abortions don't exist in this version of Britain. Ridiculousness of the plot aside, Ruth (Josie Young) had no emotional range, she acted being on the brink of suicide with the same attitude as she acted being mildly pissed off at a coworker's sexist comment. It was disappointing that having revamped Tressell's male-dominated novel, the play's only female character was sexualised - her pregnancy resulting from a rape - and being too vulnerable to look after herself, needing male characters Owen and Hunter to do it for her. The rape itself was absolutely shocking, and that is exactly the play's problem. When the play verges too far from the novel into its original script, it starts to crumble into soap-opera, adding in unnecessary plot points purely to shock. The company's adaptation of the novel was great, but it's moments of original script were clumsy, lazy, and awkward. All in all, read Tressell's novel, do not go see this play.

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