Friday, 28 October 2016

Ragtime

Thom Southerland’s spirited revival of the ’90s musical hits the mark at the diminutive charing cross theatre

Written by Richard Barber


El Doctorow’s novel Ragtime was a global bestseller when it was first published in 1975. Two decades later, it was turned into a Broadway musical and there have been a clutch of productions since on both sides of the atlantic. Now Ragtime has been revived at the intimate Charing Cross Theatre by the ever-resourceful and hugely prolific Thom Southerland – and very good it is, too.

In turn-of-the-20th-century America, we follow the three interweaving fortunes of a well-heeled family from suburban New Rochelle, a desperate Latvian immigrant, tateh (Gary Tushaw), intent on trying to improve his daughter’s future, and coalhouse Walker Jr (ako Mitchell), a black man and jobbing musician whose main focus in life becomes the quest to avenge the senseless murder of Sarah (Jennifer Saayeng), the mother of his infant son. Richard-Barber-colour-176

From the opening bars of the title song, you’re instantly transported to the drinking dens of the mean streets of New York. And here is an ensemble company of two dozen actors and musicians who can really play their instruments – everything from cello and violin to accordion and all manner of percussion.

Southerland, as he ably demonstrated in Titanic at this very venue and allegro at the Southwark Playhouse earlier this year, is little short of a magician when it comes to keeping his cast moving on a tiny performing area, his interlocking set switching from the prow of a ship one minute to the jumping joint of a piano bar the next.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the show is too long at two hours 40 minutes. The first half, anyway, has a number of false dawns before we reach the interval, so the judicious removal of a quarter of an hour would solve both problems. And the musical accompaniment, proficient as it is, sometimes swamps Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics, which is a shame when you’re trying to follow what is often quite an intricate story.

But it’s all done with undeniable gusto and feeling, coalhouse and Sarah’s inevitably doomed storyline sadly still striking a chord a century or so later. But then Tateh’s immigrant battle feels just as relevant if you listen to even a fraction of Donald Trump’s current wild rhetoric.

Stephen Flaherty’s seductive score will ensure your toes are tapping or your soul is being stirred. Invidious to single out one song, but when the well- heeled mother (Anita Louise Combe) daintily hops atop an upright piano to open her heart and her lungs on back to before, she’ll have justified the price of entry.

Until 10 December at the Charing Cross Theatre, The Arches, Villiers Street, London WC2: 0844-930650, www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk 


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