RAGTIME | London, Charing CrossTheatre

Award-winning director Thom Southerland has knocked it out of the park again, with yet another problematic Broadway ensemble musical turned into a small scale minimalist powerhouse. And this time, with a cast of dozens of multi-talented actor-musicians.

The epic novel by E. L. Doctorow doesn’t have a hero, but a host of different characters all struggling with turn of the century American life: a racially abused African-American pianist, a wealthy southern woman trapped in a loveless marriage, even Harry Houdini. Given the difficult task, this impressive production lets the actors do the talking. Two upright pianos whirl about through scaffolding and haze as the enormous cast of often unrelated characters dances, plays and sings out their sad and weary souls.

Anita Louise Combe performs the infamously explosive Back to Before with extraordinary power, carefully treading the line between a period quality and contemporary belt. Although this may be the stand out number musically, every song is beautifully staged and powerfully supported by the ensemble of actor-musicians playing accordion, strings, flute, tuba, percussion, the works.

But this show needs more lighter moments. A fleeting burst of ethereally quiet a capella vocalising in Act I stood out, because most of the show plays out loud, angry, and wild. Some people in the audience may begin to tire of the relentlessly serious anthems. But in the wake of a turbulent, post-election America, perhaps that’s exactly what we need.

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