Saturday, 22 October 2016

'Ragtime' at Charing Cross Theatre

Last week we went to see the new production of 'Ragtime' at Charing Cross Theatre. I saw a production of 'Ragtime' at the rather larger Piccadilly Theatre back in 2003, it's premier in the UK. It's based on a book about turn of the century America, the early 1900s and follows the tale of three groups of people that represent the America of the time in different ways.

We have the affluent upper middle-class of Mother, Father and Younger Brother who live outside New York in a nice house and have a nice life. Father can indulge in going away for months on end as an amateur explorer and Younger Brother is still trying to find himself and escape his pointless life. Mother is, of course, Mother, keeping the household together.

We have Coalhouse Walker a ragtime piano player and writer in Harlem who falls for Sarah and, when he's away on tour, she finds she's pregnant so runs away to have the baby in secret. The third group are immigrants from eastern Europe represented by Tateh, an artist fleeing Jewish persecution with his daughter who comes to America to start a new life. These three groups all interact in different ways against a backdrop of unthinking racism, political movements, early moves for civil rights and a young America finding it's way. We also see historic figures popping up as the story progresses with Harry Houdini, JP Morgan and Henry Ford, Emma Goldman and Booker T Washington.

The story really begins when Mother finds Sarah's baby in her garden - hidden to die or hidden to be found and looked after is never explained. Mother takes in both Sarah and baby and Coalhouse turns up to win Sarah back and start a family with her and his son. Week after week he appears until Sarah gives in and agrees to see him and they fall in love again and start to think about the future.

Meanwhile, Tateh is having a hard adjusting to his new life and cuts out paper silhouettes on the street to earn a crust. His life is no better and maybe worse than if he's stayed at home so he moves from job to job with his daughter, trying to find the America of his dreams. Everything remains happy and contented in Mother's house except for the frustrations of Younger Brother who can't get the girl he loves and keeps on working at the family fireworks factory.

But then it starts to go wrong and as happy Coalhouse and Sarah get into his car to drive back to Harlem with their baby when the local racists stop the car and demand a toll and while Coalhouse calmly leaves to seek the police they destroy his care. He refuses to be quiet about it because he has rights and Sarah is mistakenly shot when she seeks help. That sets Coalhouse off on a spiral of rage and revenge, eventually become an infamous 'most wanted' criminal. Younger Brother wants to try to help and searches for Coalhouse in Harlem. When they meet and Coalhouse asks what he wants he can only blurt out 'I know how to blow up things!' and a sad partnership is formed that can only end in disaster.

Tateh finally makes a break-through and discovers the money-making potential of moving, flicking books and that leads him to moving pictures and he re-invents himself as a a movie producer and becomes wealthy. He's found his place and, after Father dies, marries Mother who he wants to put in a movie when they meet on the beach at Atlantic City.

It's a very touching story and is very timely with the current state of American politics with the Presidential election, Trump and Black Lives Matter. It's very much an ensemble piece and there isn't really a 'lead' story or character - it's about all of them. I particularly liked Anita Louise Combe who played a calm and powerful Mother, Gary Tushaw as a very emotional Tateh, Valerie Cutko as the enigmatic Emma Goldman and Jonathan Stewart as Younger Brother (whose parting lines were that he was heading to Mexico to support the revolutionary Zapata in his struggles against the government - he's found his role in life!). I'd also single out Seyi Omooba  who played Sarah's friend and has an amazing voice, confidently and powerfully singing the final song of the first half - particularly impressive since this is her first professional role. Well done, and someone to watch.

The actors played the instruments and moved the set around for different scenes and it actually worked in this and felt natural. It seems to be a theme in the last year or so for moveable sets and, like 'The Threepenny Opera', this was very effective. The stage occasionally looked a bit too full with so many characters zipping on and off but I'm pleased it's in the smallish Charing Cross Theatre rather than somewhere much bigger since it creates an intimacy and involvement with the show. The final bows were greeted with a standing ovation and, looking back, I think I should've joined in!

Go and see this show - it's excellent!

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