Based on E. L. Doctorow’s historical novel, Ragtime tells the story of America coming to terms with the changes brought by the 20th century. The show follows three groups searching for their version of the perfect America: White Anglo-Saxon Protestants; immigrants from Eastern Europe; and African-Americans from Harlem. Each is full of hope and anxiety about what the new century might bring for them.
First performed in Toronto in 1997 before going to Broadway, this ambitious fringe production at Clapham’s tiny Landor Theatre has had to make a few changes to fit into the small pub theatre space.
George Dyer has done a fantastic job adapting Stephen Flaherty’s bouncy ragtime score to have it be played by a band of just five. But if the production has downsized the orchestra, they’ve taken no easy option with the cast. Twenty-three people squeeze onto the stage, with the end result being some very powerful and impressive chorus numbers. This really is fantastic entertainment.
This is very much an ensemble piece, but a number of performances stand out from a rather excellent crowd. Kurt Kansley has the right combination of swagger – and then anger – as he has to deal with the racism of white America. Judith Paris’ Emma Goldman (one of the many genuine historical characters in the play) is also a delight to watch.
But it is Lousia Lydell, as Mother, who really leads the pack. She delivers compassion and determination in equal measure. You really feel her anguish when her husband abandons her to explore the world in ‘Goodbye, My Love’.
The only grumble, and a minor one at that, is in the design. The imaginative set uses shadows and silhouettes referencing the small keepsakes sold by Jewish immigrant Tateh, trying to find his fortune. While this is an impressive idea, the combination of the large cast and small theatre result in a bit of a claustrophobic experience.
But this should not put you off; Ragtime is an example of what London’s fringe theatre can really deliver well.
Ragtime is at the Landor Theatre, London SW9 9PH until 8 October. Tickets cost £18 and are available online or by calling 020 7737 7276.