The American dream decorates the stage of this wonderful and gritty production of Ragtime in the fabulous Open Air Theatre. From discarded MacDonalds signs, crates decorated with the Coca-Cola emblem and a huge poster of current president Barack Obama the mound of discarded trinkets which make up the USA’s history becomes a staggering setting for this play about individuality, civil rights and the family unit.
Seen through the eyes of three disenfranchised characters, Colehouse Walker (Rolan Bell) a black man with huge ambitions, Tateh (John Marquez) a Latvian Jewish immigrant and Mother (Rosalie Craig) an upper-class housewife, the story follows their beliefs in a better America. For some the struggles lead to brighter futures whilst others never quite achieve their potential or are never given the opportunity.
Timothy Sheader’s direction of this musical is profound, mixing modern elements with traditional brings the comparisons and contradictions of today’s politics to the fore. There is a beautiful moment where Colehouse and Sarah (Claudia Kariuki) sing to their little boy Wheels Of A Dream about how much better the world could be for him and towering over them is a poster of Obama complete with the line ‘Dare To Dream’. Yet in Jon Bausor’s design even the poster is ripped, and spewing from it is the remains of the last two hundred years of American history and commercialism suggesting perhaps there is a volatility to dreaming big, a selfishness and a disregard which borders on recklessness.
John Marquez is brilliant as the adoring father Tateh and Rosalie Craig captivating as Mother, there is also an eye-catching performance from Harry Hepple as Younger Brother and special mention should go to Joshua Lacey and Mireia Mambo-Bokele who though choral characters shone. The night belongs to Rolan Bell though, whose entire body language changed, from a cock sure dreamer to a desperate vigilante. Its always a cliche to say that the cast as a whole were strong, but in this case that is the only judgement you can make.
All three of the main characters are driven by a desire to protect and enrich the lives of their children, whether it is through escaping the oppression of an upper class family unit or by avoiding the slums of Eastern Europe. The future is the most important thing. However, looking back from the future, the parallel’s remain, but you can’t help feel that the play is routing for optimism rather than the pessimistic reality of the world. If America can elect a black president then we can all ‘Dare to Dream.’
The only negative in a night filled with positives was the lack of people in the auditorium. This incredible venue is open to the elements and unfortunately this summer the elements have not been kind, but the ringing endorsement I can offer is, it rained the whole way through the second half and I didn’t notice. This is the perfect Olympic alternative, a night jammed with spectacle, and a story worth telling over and over again. Brilliant.
Ragtime is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 8th September 2012