I know I’m biased and I shouldn’t be reviewing a show that I’m involved in but what the hell. You only live once. I saw the show tonight and to say I was blown away would be a considerable understatement. My involvement with FCT has been slightly sporadic with a dip as the kids grew up, but it has been ignited as a result of the 30th anniversary and my part in ‘Ya Beauty’.
But this is a different kettle of fish altogether. This is the Edinburgh Festival. The greatest arts event in the world and little old FCT have been in it for thirty years. There’s a creeping improvement, or should I say enhancement, in the output of FCT that started in 1980 (a wee bit better than the first show in 1979) and aside from the odd blip has gathered momentum ever since. The result is that each festival prompts the response ” that was the best ever” and this year is most certainly no different. And I’ll tell you why. It’s because this group is so collegiate, so looking out for each other, so determined to be as good as is humanly possible. It’s a cliche I know but believe me when I say this is a huge family looking out for each other and willing for collective excellence. It’s refreshing indeed. And I am privileged to be in any way linked with it.
Anyway that’s a long preamble to whether Ragtime actually cuts the mustard. It does. Oh it does. There’s a bunch of old hands that are on their last show and are clocking out with style (Hannah Scott, Ronan Radin, Phoebe Dowens and Matty Smith). Hannah is a major talent that you’ll be watching on stage or screen one day soon. Trust me. Her intensity of performance always takes the breath away and again she delivers movingly. Ronan puts in the most mature performance of his career in the role of Father; Hannah’s husband; it’s a controlled and mature presentation of a man deeply challenged by his wife’s love of a black baby and its mother, the electrifying Becky Clark, new to FCT in the role of Sarah, the unfortunate mother of Coalhouse Junior’s bastard son.
Coalhouse, played by Andy Umerah, another FCT newcomer, is so good that you question whether this can be amateur theatre. Actually pretty much everyone and everything about this show makes you do that.
The show itself is top drawer. It’s based on a Penguin Modern Classic of the same name by E L Doctorow which charts the issues surrounding the retention or realisation of The American Dream depending upon where one sat on that continuum in the Ragtime, pre great war, era. From rich to poor. Black to White.
Central to this part of the story is the remarkable Sean Quinn as Tateh and his mostly mute daughter (played frighteningly well by Esther Scott). It’s them as opportunistic immigrants that most vividly make the leap from dream to reality and the show captures that beautifully.
The music of Ragtime is central to the show. It’s so complex, in its rhythmic changes and harmonic complexity, that you wonder how a group of young people can cut it. But they do, seemingly effortlessly thanks to the musical direction of Neil Sommerville and his team Marcella and Katy. The band rocks and the cast roll. They roil around the stage in a way that often takes the breath away, and that”s because Cameron Dyer, as well as performing sublimely as younger brother, has choreographed (moved really) the 45 strong cast throughout. Sublime.
Many of the show’s highlights belong to the chorus though. Taut, crisp and in character throughout, the chorus comes in at all the climaxes and never fails to pack a hefty and often gutteral punch. They create many of the most moving moments in this epic musical and many of the audience were openly in floods, and I mean floods of tears last night..
Andrew McDivitt, another newcomer, as Houdini and Julia Carstairs as Evelyn Nesbit are also on fire, but my personal accolade. amongst the secondary characters, goes to Erin Henderson as the anarchistic Emma Goldman – she really rocks. and lets not forget young Angus who as Little Boy opens the show, he too performs beautifully. I may have missed someone, if I do I apologise but that’s not to overlook their performance because this show is as difficult and dangerous as the North Face of the Eiger but FCT scale it one and all like surefooted mountain goats.
Technically the show rocks, but the last word has to go to director Andrew Dyer and his assistant Claire Stewart. Sam Mendes, get your ass up here and see what is possible.
The content is deeply political, entirely relevant to today and both moving and hilarious.
OK, my comments are lush. But I ain’t gonna do that without real reason and commitment.
If you only see one show in this year’s festival…