The one that caused all the controversy?
Ragtime the Musical with book by Terence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens is a gritty affair set at the turn of the 20th Century following the lives of three separate families as they face the trials and tribulations of life, whether it be issues with wealth, poverty, freedom or prejudice that has an impact on their journey through life. The piece in itself deals with all of these issues with scenes of Police brutality, racial attacks, the journey of immigrants on their quest to find the American dream, and the strains on wealthy military families with the absence of a father figure.
Director Timothy Sheader has created something incredibly ambitious and taken the work to a new level that brings the text up close and personal to the very modern day. A realisation by the final verse of the finale, “Wheels of a Dream” drawing a lump to your throat that this piece is as relevant to issues discussed of the period, to those today. Sheader’s interpretation cleverly introduces the cast in present modern day attire that reflects the change in society, military, parents, PA’s, nurses are all present and form a mix of ethnic backgrounds. These characters in the present transform to their role at the turn of the century to perform the story. Clever costume changes and notable attention to detail to each era by Laura Hopkins aid the interpretation and provoke thought as Sheader makes the decision not to change the sex or race of the performer in their transformation from present day. For example Sophia Nomvete takes the role of Booker T. Washington, displayed as a successful Politian of the modern day, the transformation sees her play the male role for the story of “Ragtime”. Where debate rises from having cross casting, particularly on a production set so clear by boundaries of race prejudice, the production adds the extra dimension that times have perhaps changed.
This is only emphasised by a huge billboard of President Barack Obama with the words “Dare to Dream” looming over the playing space acting as a reminder of a changing time in present day, particularly during a scene where four fire officers deface a car during a racial attack that sees the vehicle trashed, sprayed with insults and ditched in the river due to the owner being a black citizen by Irish workers who have had to learn to “deal with” the insults they receive. The design by Jan Baussor however adds yet another dimension to this complex piece. The Regents Park theatre has been quite literally blown apart, the billboard obliterated in the centre with a mound of a host of appliances and modern references to McDonalds and Disneyland littered through the space. A vast amount of dusty concrete is shadowed by a huge symbol of industry and the modern world with a blue crane. As Tateh an immigrant arrives with his daughter in search of a new life, standing high in the cavity of the billboard looking over the space, you’re prompted to think whether the ideology of the “American Dream” or indeed our own Cameron manifesto of “We’re all in this together” is really all it’s cracked up to be.
The interpretation of this production doesn’t shy away from a message they are trying to evoke from their audience. I have great admiration to the creative team for headlining straight into an unknown and having the vision to be daring, creative and inventive with a wonderful piece. Others may argue that the text doesn’t require the effort in searching for new complexities, particularly as Ragtime deals with many of them already without the references to life today, but I couldn’t help but appreciate that a team have created something new and visually exciting to prompt debate and discussion.
As setting and the style of performance come under strong scrutiny its vision is supported by a fantastic cast who complete this evening of theatrical delight for the senses. The score which is lead under the tight baton of Nigel Lilley, fills the space with a 30+ strong cast who resonate through the park giving a tingly sensation at the power of the song and the lyrics they sing. My only criticism is that with such anthems comes such incredible skill musically, and it would have been a joy to have seen the orchestra rather than them hiding in the leafy undergrowth.
Rosalie Craig presents the warmth of her role as mother, as she develops from the military wife whom follows the decisions of her husband to making many of her own that would change things forever. The mothering instinct taking over the societal expectation of whom to associate with, only makes her beautiful rendition of “Back to Before” all the more powerful. Real beauty and emotion cries out in Claudia Kariuki’s portrayal of Sarah with a tingling performance of “Your Daddy’s son” which has the audience teetering to explode into applause. Both performances earn the accolade from the audience. Emma Goldman is strongly performed and characterised by Tasmin Carroll on her trusty Brompton Bicycle whilst Stephane Anelli delights as Harry Houdini, with inventive entrances throughout the set and earning the applause as he successfully frees himself from a strait jacket hanging upside down mid-air.
The production should be praised for the brave and adventurous interpretation that alongside the thrill of outdoor theatre brings excitement to the Regents Park venue. The original Broadway production opened to a mix of reviews and I expect this will be of no exception. For me the creativity of a director with a cast who more than deliver make for a piece of theatre that will have me thinking in weeks to come.