Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Wednesday, March 26, 2003
There's No Business
The Piccadilly last night to see Ragtime, the stage adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's best-selling novel. It's a darkly intelligent, cynical - and OK, at times, self-important, vanishing-up-its-own-arse - musical take on early 20th-century American history. That history is captured in the interweaving lives of three diverse families – affluent WASPs, an emergent Harlem wannabe middle-class, and two just-off-the-boat immigrants – as they clutch and claw and cheat and crave for their own piece of the tainted American dream.

Employing ragtime music and Negro spiritual, as much as traditional Broadway belters and sub-Misérables ballads, it's a brave, thought-provoking three hours, if a little too heavy on the seriousness. But there's not a dud turn among the show's 64-strong cast, with leading lady Maria Friedman positively incandescent. Can this woman sing? Or can she just turn super-nova and leave you shuddering at the emotion she can pull out of a simple combination of music and lyrics? Go get a ticket now.

(PUBLIC HEALTH WARNING: There now follows yet one more luvvie rant about what-an-awful-state-London-theatre-is-in-today. Citizens with better things to do should get out of here now)

Yes, get a ticket now. Because, judging by the rows of empty seats, I'll be surprised if it makes it to the end of its scheduled twelve-week run. For, by heavens, they don't all live Happily Ever After! Ragtime's main themes are not love and romance, but racism! And politics! And the capitalist exploitation of the working classes! And goodness me, non-existent Blue-Rinse Lady in the second row, that would never do, would it?

Don't blame the old dear though. It's near-on fifty quid to see the performance (decent seat in the stalls, glossy programme, glass of red wine – and forget about the cab ride home). And which would Blue-Rinse Lady rather spend her dosh on? A largely unknown quantity like this? Or a cosily predictable Big Show, where you know what you're in for even before settling down in the stalls? The Big Shows might not get the brain cells working, but at least they come ready-made with a guaranteed, high-calorie, syrupy Happy Ending.

Self-crippled by ridiculous ticket prices, as well as insulting booking fees (and yes, Ticketmaster, I am talking about your own money-grabbing, cynical, corporate, cancerous, petty little enterprise), London's West End has become its own worst enemy. An arid wasteland if you're looking for fresh talent or stuff which dares to be a tad different. An artistic desert where you only Hit It Big if you Play It Safe.

Sole survivors are shows with advance receipts guaranteed by big-name support (Bombay Dreams - Lloyd-Webber; The Lion King – the Disney Corporation); revivals like My Fair Lady; or shows cobbling together a string of familiar hits and calling it a plot (Queen's We Will Rock You, Madness' Our House, or, God help us, Cliff, a celebration of the bachelor boy's life and now playing, no doubt to packed houses of Blue-Rinses, at the Prince of Wales).

So, a word to West End producers. Follow the example of Nick Hynter at the National Theatre. Cut the prices of those top seats to 25GBP max. Slash those insulting booking fees. Stop making going to the theatre a predictable and elitist pastime. Only then will you get more bums on the seats and more thinking shows like Ragtime.

Otherwise, our West End theatres will be soon be playing nothing more than endless quick fixes of Mamma-bloody-Mia.

And when that trend fizzles out, what will you do then, Mr Producer? Shame you didn't encourage those original talents in the first place, isn't it?

(ALL-CLEAR. OK. Calm down. Mop sweating brow. End of Rant. All of you non-luvvies can come back in now.)