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Ragtime the Musical

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Based on the 1975 novel by E L Doctorow, America is portrayed as a land of promise and possibilities at the dawn of the 20th century in Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally's 1998 Broadway musical Ragtime. But it is clear this is a country with a myriad of racial prejudices to overcome before it can emerge as the nation we might recognise today.

Robert McWhir's Landor Theatre production sees the historical fiction presented by a hard working cast of 21. Three very different families are portrayed alongside a mesh of real-life figures including chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, escapologist Harry Houdini, civil rights leader Booker T Washington and industrialist Henry Ford.

The ambitious scale of this revival often results in a crowded stage - during the opening number it feels there may be as many performing as bearing witness - but for the most part the cast are accurately corralled. An impressive feat, helped along with flashes of choreography from Matthew Gould.

The production is a mass of strong individual performances, however the overall picture at times feels slightly constrained by the limits of the physical space. These restrictions have not negatively impacted the band, led by George Dyer, which never feels under supported.

Louisa Lydell excels as Mother and is an authoritative voice in all of her scenes. It is a particular pleasure to see her alongside an impassioned John Barr as Jewish immigrant Tateh. The pair's "Our Children" duet is a vocal highlight of the second act. Kurt Kansley is impressive, bringing a smokey and rumbly lower register, as well as something altogether more haunting, to his performance as ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker.

McWhir and designer Martin Thomas tackle a range of locations through a brilliantly conceived set of sliding projection screens. This is a slick idea - McWhir draws comparisons in his programme notes between the set's construction and Tateh's work as a silhouette artist - and forms just one part of the well-dressed back wall. There's little room for other set with the large company needing space to work.

This is a mammoth piece, the range of emotions and issues tackled is vast; the more frivolous "The Crime of the Century" from a sassy Hollie O'Donoghue, through to a devastated Rosalind James singing "Your Daddy’s Son". The barefaced injustice, the tensions and raw emotions may occasionally feel stifled, but overall this is a formidable production which showcases what can be achieved on the London fringe.


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