Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester never ceases to amaze with their brave choice of in-house Musical productions. With the exception of just a couple, all of them thus far have been little-known and practically unheard of shows, and Rags is no exception. It's a huge gamble for any company these days producing works which are not guaranteed bums-on-seats shows, but for golden-fingered Hope Mill and Aria Entertainment they seemingly can do no wrong.
What's more, this production of Rags is something of a premiere too. The production team have been working very closely with lyricist Stephen Schwartz who has re-written and reworked the show for them. The history of this show has not been particularly spectacular with the first Broadway production closing after just 4 performances, with several subsequent re-writes and re-visitings, none of which seemed to captivate. However Schwartz seems to believe in this show and I seem to agree, there is something certainly both captivating and emotive about it. My over-riding concern though was that whether a show which would obviously resonate more easily with Americans - especially the Jewish population - would have the same impact on a Manchester audience. However, I think the answer to that has to be yes, since we are politically sitting on a knife's edge at the moment here in this country and so the themes of displacement, immigration and racism are unfortunatley all too relevant once again.
The story centres around a Russian Jewish widow, Rebecca Hershkowitz (Rebecca Trehearn) and her young 9 year old son ( Lochlan White this evening alternating with George Varley) and her struggles in the NY ghetto she finds herself, sewing in a sweat-shop for a German-Jewish boss, Bronfman (Gavin James) who has made it out and lives a life of luxury uptown. Rebecca finds she is being romanced by Bronfman and due to her extraordinary sewing skills, is offered a way out. However, there are other problems which (without spoiling the plot) put a few spanners in the works for her. First is the fact that she is in love with a friendly Italian immigrant Sal (Robert Tripolino), and second, and perhaps more importantly, her love and gratitude for the family she lives with, especially Bella (Lydia White), the friend she made whilst on the boat crossing from Gdansk to the States, and who took her and her son in despite being penniless.
The whole cast was an extremely strong one, and it was impossible not to get involved and wrapped up in their world. Trehearn was undeniably superb as Rebecca; Lydia White as Bella was captivating, and a youthful, optimistic energy came from Sam Peggs as songwriter Ben. Gravitas and solidity was provided for by Tim Walton as a very naturalistic and sympathetic Jack, whilst one of my favourite moments from the show, 'Three Sunny Rooms' was given a lovely interpretation [amazing how similar this number is to 'It Couldn't Please Me More' from Cabaret] from Valda Aviks as Rachel, and Michael S Siegel as Avram. Siegel's interpretation of this role was, for me, just the cherry on top of the icing.
Credit must also be given to the hard-working 4-piece ensemble who not only had to change with somewhat lightning speed between anti-semitic up-town Americans to ragged ghetto-living jews themselves, but also were tasked with playing on-stage instruments which worked very well generally. I thought there were a couple of instances which were a little unrealistic or uncalled for, but mostly this idea worked very well. They also managed to make themselves look many more than just four (imaginative directing I suspect, using other cast members who were not on stage as their character at the time).
With some authentic-looking costumes, (Maggie Horwood), a simple yet evocative set design (Gregor Donnelly) utilising period valises making a New York skyline and part of the apartment wall was inspired working excellently; the music, a mix of Eastern European traditional rhythms, Klezmer, and of course good ol' American Ragtime, under the secure direction of Nick Barstow; director Bronagh Lagan has created a cohesive whole which, despite a rather long first act, a very truthful and emotional show with well-placed humour [I loved the various very Jewish sarcastic one-line put-downs!] which is most definitely worth taking the time out to watch. Sitting somewhere between the more well-known shows of Ragtime and Fiddler On The Roof, Rags in this stripped-back version certainly appeals, and here's hoping the cast continue to get their well-deserved standing ovations each night to come.
Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 5/2/19
photo credit - Nathan Chandler