BWW Reviews: RAGTIME, Landor Theatre, September 6 2011
One of the joys of theatre is its transformation of space from the physical into the imaginary - it's one reason why exposure to drama should form a part of every child's education. In Ragtime (at the Landor Theatre until 8 October), a compact space above a South London pub provides the canvas for a musical portrait of New York's teeming metropolis of 100 years ago - in the hands of director Robert McWhir and through brilliantly clever use of silhouettes, the Big Apple at its biggest is fully realised in our mind's eye.
Based on EL Doctorow's epic novel, this revival of the award-winning Broadway show follows the intersecting lives of three families: one wealthy, world-weary and WASPish; another immigrant, impoverished and industrious; another African-American, angry and anarchic. These three breaking and broken families are uncomfortably stereotyped (the white partriarch is casually racist in the manner of an antebellum South "gentleman"; the Jewish immigrant is technocratic and brims with business potential even in his darkest days; the African-American is a womanising musician who has seen the error of his ways) but one has to leave such political correctness at the door, put it down to its 1975 source material and wallow in the melodrama.
And we're not short of melodrama, as Mother (Louisa Lydell in a beautifully judged performance) trapped in a marriage slowly falling apart, takes an abandoned newborn and its frightened African-American mother Sarah (Rosalind James) into her comfortable house in the white neighbourhood of New Rochelle. Mother's impulsive act of kindness sparks off events that lead her husband and brother to confront their complacent acceptance of a status quo that is crumbling all around them. The baby's father, Coalhouse (Kurt Kansley), is eventually accepted back by Sarah (Rosalind James), but his driving of the New Model T Ford on the roads of New Rochelle leads to consequences none can foresee. As black and white lives descend into chaos, Tateh (John Barr in a high octane portrayal), a Latvian immigrant seeking the American Dream, confronts an American nightmare in the tenements and factories of the Lower East Side, before catching a break which leads him on an upward spiral that mirrors Coalhouse's downward curve. There's plenty of historical characters touching these lives too: Henry Ford heartlessly turning men and women into machines; JP Morgan flaunting the power of the oligarchs; Harry Houdini showing that immigrants really can make it in America; and Booker T Washington and Emma Goldman, preaching revolution to the workers, the former through slow assimilation into white society, the latter through overthrowing it.
The production works because, as in the real New York and the real London, everyone is forced together - audience and cast. We see the fear in Tateh's eyes as he fears losing his teenage daughter to illness or predatory men; we feel Coalhouse's desolation (Kansley's singing is emotive and his acting even more affecting); and we feel Sarah's love for the baby she had abandoned in such trauma (in a cast of talented singers, Ms James is the standout voice). The production uses no microphones and no special effects and is all the stronger for it. Through the power of theatre, we really are transported 3000 miles in distance and 100 years in time, as a small stage turns into a sprawling city.