Thursday, 8 September 2011

And There Was Distant Music (Coming From a Small Stage in Clapham)

Another wet and windy afternoon in London Town, another solo theatre adventure. Following a night spent with some very drunk friends, and thanks to my trusty smartphone, I decided to leave them in their hungover stupors and get on a bus to the Landor Theatre in Clapham to see their revival of Ragtime. Standing outside under an umbrella I looked up towards the room above the pub dubious as to how the traditionally grandiose epic was going to fit into such a tiny space.

Ticket bought, tummy in nervous state of "I really hope they don't screw this up and ruin all my preconceptions that this will be amazing", I climbed the narrow staircase, pass through a cramped corridor and entered a space not that much larger than my living room. Being the (very short) eager beaver I plumped for a front row seat and awaited preconceived amazement.

The novel of Ragtime by EL Doctorow is a classic in America yet hasn't made the transition to many British readers (although I love the book). This is undoubtedly due to the story being firmly set in 1900 USA, examining the American Dream whilst intertwining real figures from American history into fiction. The same inability to transition to the UK is also true of the musical; it has been in the West End before but not to much success. I felt that the episodic nature of the book did not transfer to the stage too well, donating large periods of time to one of the three story threads leaving the audience wanting to get back to a different part of the story. This was especially obvious at the beginning of the second act where bereaved widower Coalhouse vows revenge then disappears for half of the act, leaving the other story lines to provide some of the weakest songs in the show. I just wanted to know what happened to Coalhouse! Why build tension up and then allow it to subside whilst we watch a pointless number about baseball?

Just let him get on with the grieving!

All the performances were very strong even under the close scrutiny of an audience less than an arms length away. Alexander Evans showed a vulnerable side to the thankless roll of Father; if any character could be thought of as the villain it is he, yet Evans managed to make me empathise with his struggle to keep up with the changing times. Louisa Lydell as Mother held the whole story together tremendously, impressing with a vocally triumphant "Back To Before".  John Barr played Tateh with real love and warmth; by the end I wanted him to be my dad, his accent was spot on and he had real chemistry with his onstage daughter. It is hard to live up to a role originated by a four time Tony Award winner but Rosalind James made the part of Sarah her own, infusing it with soulful vocals and powerful acting. For me, the real standout was Kurt Kansley as Coalhouse Walker Jr, he inhabited every trait and characteristic of the part and wasn't afraid to show his emotions. "Make Them Hear You" was one of those moments you live for in theatre where one person takes the entire audience's breath away. the band, although small, could give any larger show a run for its money, I particularly enjoyed musical director George Dyer "head conducting"- a must have skill for an MD/Conductor/piano player.

Tateh tells Emma Goldman how it is
As a girl who occasionally dabbles in the technical side of theatre, I liked the simplicity of the set combined with the effective use of silhouettes to echo large set pieces the theatre did not have room for. The homemade quality made you think they could have been made by Tateh himself. There was one moment at the top of act two that made my heart sink though. If you are going to use newspapers in a show, please make them at least look period; with the audience so close you really can't just use the Metro. Maybe the props person spent all their time on the highly symbolic model car but I don't think 1900s newspapers had TV listings.

Aside from the oversight on some props, the entire production was amazing, I had goosebumps from the outset with the rousing title number. It literally took ten minutes for me to stop shaking after "Till We Reach That Day"
- a mournful gospel song with a heartbreaking solo by Emma Beckford. Director Robert McWhir has managed the impossible in translating Ragtime to a small fringe theatre, amplifying the emotions without losing pacing in what can be a clunky story.

PS. The guy playing Henry Ford is hot!

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