Ahrens and Flaherty’s musical Ragtime is a tribute to that style of music and the culture that existed around its establishment. Based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, it links pivotal characters from different walks of life through sweeping melodies and ragtime. Set in the beautifully restored great hall of Bishopsgate Institute, the 1894 construction pulls us straight into the ragtime era. The Bishopsgate Institute even houses some original pamphlets by Emma Goldman, who features in the musical, bringing it all respectively back around to the piece. Primarily an amateur group, Centre Stage is one of the oldest existing in London, having run for 50 years. They run as a charity and aim to bring the arts to as many people as possible.

With a live orchestra sat to your right, the stage is set in traverse, like a long catwalk in front of you. It is different, sure, but allows only for one exit and entrance, which means the choreographer (Lemington Ridley) has sneakily found ways of getting people who need to be on stage, on behind groups of ensemble. Ridley is also good at creating space, allowing characters to stomp angrily up and down, whilst other moments (‘The Gettin’ Ready Rag’, ‘Henry Ford’) see the ensemble crowding and taking over the space to make it into a club or assembly line. To begin with I don’t know where to look, as the stage makes for a scattering of the performers eye-lines and it’s hard to take in the long space as a whole. As we move through the piece though, the choreographer has created ways to shift our focus from one end to the other.

Because there is no wing space, you see the ensemble transform in front of your eyes, often to two or three different characters per number, in order to create a setting without props for the scene. Ragtime: The Musical is almost entirely sung-through and we lose nothing as this effervescent ensemble power us from number to number, we have no doubt that they are working hard.

Two leading members are undoubtedly created during the hauntingly beautiful number ‘Our Children’, when Mother (Trudi Camilleri) and Tateh (Philip Doyle) have a moment of peace on stage and we are finally able to appreciate the beautiful orchestrations. Another duo, Boy (Chris Hughes-Copping) and Girl (Marsha Blake) bring a beautiful innocence to the piece as Boy continues to jut in with things he probably shouldn’t say or ask about which Hughes-Copping does tremendously well. Michael Onabanjo-Whittaker as Colhouse Walker Jr. is a powerhouse of a man, with a low strength which commands attention even when static. Siobhan Aarons brings a lovely energy to vaudevillian Evelyn Nesbit, extremely lyrical; she is a gorgeous dancer and performer. Tasha Msanide also only has a small solo at Sarah’s Funeral, however she is striking with an unbelievable voice.

The design of the piece is well done, mostly themed to grey, the ensemble have costumes which allow them to slip into and out of their named characters.

Unfortunately the piece could have done with more technical time to allow for adjustments to the massive space. At times we can barely hear the beautiful orchestra over the maxing out of performers microphones. The balance of sound is completely off, and I think it’s such a shame as the full orchestra compliments this sweeping score so well. There are points too when we want to see a simplicity which matches the composition, but because of the space we aren’t allowed it. Despite this, there is so much strength in the ensemble energy, we allow their downs, because their ups are so great.

Ragtime The Musical (In Concert) is playing Bishopsgate Institute until 19 of June. For more information and tickets, see Centre Stage website.

Photo: Antony Sendall