Wednesday, 19 October 2016

People Call It Ragtime......

You all know how much I love Thom Sutherland, I gushedly blogged my admiration a few years ago after seeing his production of Mack and Mabel at Southwalk Playhouse. Well since then his star has been in ascendance - justifiably so – from awards, to Broadway and now Artistic Director of The Charing Cross Theatre. (The Players to us thesbs of the naughties!)

Working with Thom years ago I was inspired by his passion, the rewards of which are constantly seen in his emotionally driven productions. You can be in any space and he will tug upon your heart strings, revealing the fundamental human story within a long lost musical or classic tale -memories of heaving sobs (The Notebook style) sitting in Catford watching the final moments of Carousel prove my point perfectly.

In recent years I have taken myself off on solo dates to see his work, there really is nothing more pleasant than a solo culture date; spending time with yourself, expanding your mind and enriching your soul should be on the NHS, but it can be equally pleasant to share a theatrical date with a rather lovely gentleman. If only so you can have someone to debrief and bat opinions about with afterwards!

This is where I found myself on Monday night – the press night for Thom’s new production of Ragtime with the aforementioned lovely gentleman. The theatre was as hot as the themes Ragtime explores; racial tensions, immigration, prejudiced society, changing perceptions and dreams for a better life. Surely there isn’t a more relevant piece of musical theatre in London at present to shine a light upon our current sad state of affairs? It felt quite shaming to watch Tateh and his daughter arrive on the boat full of hopes and dreams only to see them met with wary looks and challenges......

And that’s where Thom is clever – by getting down to the basic human stories of a piece without the bells and whistles, leaves an audience free to reflect upon how the human condition hasn’t really changed. It’s not just Ibsen, Shakespeare and Chekhov who do this, musical theatre can too. One of the best moments in this production is as the company surround the audience at the end of Act One, the lyrics of Till We Reach That Day resonate beautifully and don't allow us to escape the potency of the message. This production should be compulsory viewing to our government, Brexit voters and potentially voters on November 8th, we can all be reminded of Tateh’s dream for the perfect movie from time to time.

So is this production any good? I have to admit that Ragtime isn’t in my top 10 musicals but with Thom’s touch it works; his direction is fluid aided by the fantastic, ever-changing, set. Using actor-musos works perfectly to bring the Ragtime to life; it’s a topical trend but never fails to be awe-inspiring to watch these insanely talented folk. Howard Hudson does yet another incredible job with the lighting – creating filmic images with shadows and gloom to guide the action, he really is a clever man.

For me, Earl Carpenter as Father steals focus; my Javert from our 2009 cast hasn’t lost any of his statuesque, commanding presence. I bloomin’ love his voice, rich and powerful and a welcome addition to this score. I can’t really recall the Father character from previous Ragtime productions, Earl’s performance made me understand it much better; What A Game is a masterclass in understatement and scene-stealing. He is constantly thinking and doesn’t need to display Father’s turmoil, it is just there in his eyes; indeed I barely watched Anita Louise Combe’s powerful final verse of Back To Before (wonderful vocals) because of the compelling stillness and pent up sadness of Father downstage right, this was the one moment of the show when I welled up. There’s a reason why certain performers endure, my gentleman put it perfectly “he is the Rolls Royce of performers...” reliable, classy and classic.

But enough about Earl! Ragtime is yet another hit to add to Thom’s increasing repertoire and it is so worthy of a watch. Take yourself on a solo culture date or go with someone who makes your heart smile but just go and enjoy the score, the performances and the message. It’s gonna sell out quicker than Glastonbury after all those 5* reviews, so hurry up!

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