This past month – with its startling brief display of something like national pride – has invited endless consideration of what it means to be British. Confusedly citing Marmite, Routemasters, blood-sports and emotional repression is all very well, but an evening at the Open Air Theatre watching Ragtime would be far more instructive to any potential citizen. Watching hundreds of determined theatre-goers huddled under rain-capes and tartan blankets, clutching thermos flasks or plastic cups of Pimm’s and enjoying a musical of uncertain reputation while black skies belly overhead, one is tempted to begin fondly humming ‘Land of Hope and Glory.’
Based on a 1975 novel by EL Doctorow, Ragtime is set between 1900 and 1917, and depicts the tragedies and triumphs of a group of immigrants chasing that elusive American Dream. The cast is large – confusingly so – and includes a WASPish family in their comfortable brownstone; a ragtime pianist named Coalhouse Walker, with his wife and child; and Tateh, a Jewish Latvian and his young daughter. There are a range of plots and sub-plots of varying probability, including abandoned babies and cotton-mill servitude, and disturbing depictions of racial hatred.
Sundry turn-of-the-century celebrities appear from time to time to give the audience a sharp nudge in the ribs: JP Morgan, chewing a fat cigar, or Houdini offering advice from within the freezer compartment of a very large fridge. Every now and then a young lady sporting 10 denier tights in ‘American Tan’ swung gamely across the stage, but since on this occasion rain stopped play in the interval, her significance remains obscure.
This production is almost uniformly competent. The cast performs the neatly-choreographed set-pieces with impeccable enthusiasm, and the lead performers are convincing in their roles, with occasionally quite beautiful vocals. The set design is a courageous attempt at reminding the audience that the issues grappled onstage remain: Obama mildly rebukes the proceedings from a vast campaign poster; there is a great deal of concrete rubble lying about positively inviting a Health and Safety risk assessment; and the Model T Ford which in the original novel provokes the abuse directed at Coalhouse is a decrepit hatchback that might’ve been dragged up from the canal at Mile End.
But there is no zest of choreography or clarity of voice that could compensate for the show’s sledgehammer subtlety of plot, excruciatingly banal book by Terrence McNally and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s tepid score. Ragtime does indeed feature, but less for its own glorious anarchic irresistible sake than because it is a kind of palatable shorthand for African-American experience. When Tateh comes onstage to do a great deal of patient suffering from behind his beard, sure enough a little light Klezmer makes an appearance. And when Sarah sings – throbbing with nobility as she pleads with an indifferent president (Republican, of course) – Flaherty tries his hand at Gospel. There is something a little cynical in such an arrangement, which I at least could forgive had there been anything memorable to tuck away and take home, but there was nothing of sufficient interest or beauty to outlast the rain.
To address so persistingly painful a problem as racial inequality is, of course, both brave and laudable – but the contrast between glib lyrics and imagery and Ragtime’s sombre theme was uncomfortable to say the least. When Tateh’s colt-limbed daughter falls desperately ill and he has nothing to wrap her in but his own prayer shawl, I’m afraid I laughed a little, and however hard I tried that wretch of a laugh would keep trickling out.
But for all that, and despite the truncated performance, I left feeling oddly exhilarated. The stoicism of the performers – who might’ve been basking under an August sun for all the notice they took of the rain – was worth an hour’s gentle soaking, and there’s a childish pleasure to be had in watching puzzled moths darting in the spotlights, and indifferent herons heading west for their tea. The musical itself might have been rather a washout, but cast and climate together made it a memorable evening, all the same.