Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally’s musical Ragtime (which premiered on Broadway in 1998 and in the West End in 2003) is about the energy and modernity embodied in the ‘real’ music of African American culture that was beginning to cross boundaries at the turn of the twentieth century. Robert McWhir’s astonishing production exploits every nook and cranny of the Landor Theatre, evoking the teeming American melting pot in 1906 through illusions and imagination. This fast-moving, pared-down staging, which can’t rely on the spectacle of fireworks and a real motorcar that the original production enjoyed, restores the piece’s somewhat Brechtian roots, making a truly immersive experience in which one is placed right in the midst of the turbulence.
Taking place in the bustling metropolis of New York City and the leafy, all-white suburb of New Rochelle, by way of Atlantic City, the three strands of the story (mixing fact and fiction) are held together by Mother (a sensitively modulated performance by Louisa Lydell), a privileged housewife who has thus far lived the “too safe” life expected of a woman of her social standing, given an opportunity to do something different when her firework manufacturer husband leaves to go exploring for a year. Upon discovering an abandoned black baby, she takes the child and his washerwoman mother, Sarah, into her comfortable home. Also crisscrossing in the microcosm is Tateh, a Latvian Jew with a young daughter, disillusioned by the way in which the Land of Opportunity offers the same deprivations and prejudices as the Old World and strikes up an unlikely rapport with Mother.
As the tragic Sarah, Rosalind James, with her gorgeous voice and clear-eyed innocence, makes a deeply heartfelt sacrificial lamb. Her baby’s estranged father, ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, renounces his womanising past and tracks them down in order to win her back. In the process, he befriends Sarah’s benefactress and her Little Boy and Younger Brother (David McMullan), motivating the latter’s development from a dandy to a political activist. Kurt Kansley has charisma to burn, compellingly charting Coalhouse’s journey from a carefree musician to a vengeful arsonist, driven by injustice. There is a performance of outstanding empathy by John Barr as Tateh (reprising the role he understudied in the original London production), struggling to make enough money to feed himself and his daughter by selling silhouettes on the streets, imbued with the canny business sense to his little “movie books” into something profitable, and has a warm bond with Lydell’s Mother.
Amongst the supporting cast, Judith Paris exudes zealous energy as anarchist Emma Goldman; Alexander Evans’s Father embodies the narrow-minded attitudes and casual racism of his time and Hollie O’Donoghue sparkles as scandalous entertainer Evelyn Nesbit. One of the greatest joys of the production is the way in which every member of the cast of 21 is sharply defined as an individual (something that you wouldn’t get in a cast of 60), and collectively make up a force to be reckoned with.
Choreographer Philip Conley adeptly manoeuvres these groups of people who don’t know how to interact with each other, jostling for space in an overcrowded city, as well as the intricate theatricality of a very Chicago-esque courtroom number, a rowdy baseball game and a silent film shoot. In a nod to Tateh’s silhouettes, the cityscape and waves of the ocean are evoked by projected shadows (designed by Martin Thomas), with transitions between settings aided by Howard Hudson’s creative lighting.
The five-piece band led by George Dyer play Flaherty’s complex score with ferocious commitment. This important musical feels uncannily timely in light of recent events in London – angry, ardent and limitless in compassion, this is a tremendous achievement that brims with infectious fervour.