Sweet mystery of Ragtime writersDate: 2 April 2012
Running over the brow of Primrose Hill on Palm Sunday in the late morning sunshine, I encountered my first open air theatre event of the season: a religious service with a procession, choir and congregation.
Later in the afternoon I caught up with The Glorious Ones at the Landor Theatre in Clapham, a celebration of open air commedia dell'arte in the form of a sly but sentimental, and occasionally bawdy, musical revue by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.
Ahrens and Flaherty are best known for Once on this Island and Ragtime — which opens the Regent's Park summer season — but I confess to finding their stuff no more than dull and competent; the original Broadway production of Ragtime by Frank Galati was sensational for twenty minutes, and had a great company cakewalk somewhere in the middle but the rest was mere padding.
That show's been revived in New York — and indeed was seen, to some critical acclaim — at the little Landor last year. But even an enthusiastic piece about the authorial pair by Mark Shenton in last week's edition of The Stage didn't actually itemise their merits, or why it was that, after thirty years, they remain curiously unknown to the public, or indeed identifiable in any way except to a small minority.
They're hardly the modern day equivalent of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, though that seems to be the idea. The Glorious Ones — which dates from off-Broadway in 2007 — gives hints of delight in numbers that deploy cliches of tarantella and fairground music, but the lyrical writing, and the ballads, seem not to belong to any musical tradition or style or period at all. Everything is professionally arranged and crafted, and overwhelmingly old-fashioned — and that's it.
As usual at the Landor, the presentation in Robert McWhir's production is colourful and attentive, the actors appearing through a flimsy scrim of history and unpacking their show on a bare wooden stage which they populate as stock commedia characters — the Harlequin, the old buffoon, the doctor, Columbine and a clown. But the actual stage business is extremely poor and uninspiring, so that one of the show's central tenets — the usurpation of the actor by the writer in the modern theatre — fails to strike home in any way.
Still, it was a novelty to see Peter Straker blending into an ensemble as the crockety Pantalone (and not really enough for him to sing, methinks), and I absolutely loved Kate Brennan as the fulsome, man-eating Columbine, rich in voice and temper, something of a new Jodie Prenger with added class.
It was interesting to be down south and Clapham High Street way on a sunny afternoon: it's a regular quartier, with buzzing bars and restaurants and a pronounced boho, Greenwich Village atmosphere with its own black jungle vibe, too.
My other weekend outings included a reading of a new play in the Young Writers Festival at the Royal Court (Reflection by 18 year-old Rianna Mitchell-Henry showed distinct promise in its stand-off between an unemployed teenager with a criminal record and his overpowering mother, beautifully read by Michelle Austin) and the latest from the Heat and Light young people's programme at Hampstead Theatre (On the Threshing Floor by Rory Mullarkey was a Communist parable set in rural England, not performed to this company's usual high standard of enthusiasm and aggression).
But real theatre, as so often, was being played out in real life. On Friday morning, a rogue water pipe burst and created a flood in our dining room and cellar; luckily I was in the house at the time and managed to remember where the water supply stop cock was, thus intercepting a full-scale Biblical disaster.
And on Sunday night our elderly widowed neighbour three doors away was found on her bedroom floor, having fallen over and remained, helpless, there for at least thirty-six hours...luckily, she was conscious, and not too cold, by the time the alarm was raised and the ambulance arrived to whisk her off to hospital.
So you can see how, in the midst of all that excitement, a so-so musical commedia dell'arte show paled into even greater insignificance than it represented at the time of its performance.