The play opens on a high note. Two DJs stand in a tower playing tunes, addressing the audience as if they were clubbers. With the help of Remi Vaughan Richards' simple but effective set, they lead us on a journey through Black history, from slavery through to modern-day police brutality, each segment brought to life through the power of song, dance or video.
Amani Naphtali's direction is something of a mixed bag, though. At times, he fills the stage with energy and conveys with real force some thought-provoking arguments. But more often, he tends to bombard the audience with the same oft-repeated message. The problem must lie with the fact that Naphtali is also the writer, perhaps too sensitive too cut where necessary. As a result, the piece feels overstuffed with overlong scenes that serve little purpose but to clutter the narrative.
The cast provide a sense of freshness. Hugely energetic, they rise to the challenge that their multiple, all singing-all dancing roles present. Amongst the ensemble, Kevin Harvey deserves singling out for his chameleon-type performances, ideal for a one-man show.
It's a shame that some of Naphtali's portrayals of black and white seem to have been ordered from 'Stereotypes R Us'. One scene in which white police storm into a house to terrorise an old black lady left me feeling uneasy instead of emotional.
Ragamuffin only succeeds in parts - and in different parts for different sections of the audience. In general, on the night I attended, younger theatregoers appeared to enjoy the rap and slapstick elements that made many older theatregoers squirm, while the historical monologues (a hit with the latter) drove them to fevered text-messaging.
And they weren't the only ones left frustrated. Innovate, energetic and loud it may be, but with a running time of nearly four hours, Ragamuffin left me feeling more fatigued than empowered.
- Glenn Meads (reviewed at Manchester's Contact Theatre)