Chief examiner Mr Burgess, played with thrilling comic cruelty by Steven Pacey, sets his latest cohort of four would-be London Taxi drivers the task of committing to memory all 320 routes, 15,842 streets and all places of interest on the way within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. “No taxi driver in no other city in no other country in the world has to know a fraction of what you have to know. And not many brain surgeons neither.” The late Jack Rosenthal’s 1979 play for TV exploring the impact of this almost impossible challenge (70% drop-out rate then and some 25,000 streets now) is adapted for the stage by Simon Block and directed with comic verve by Rosenthal’s wife for 30 years Maureen Lipman, who appeared in the TV drama.
Lush romantic stories are bread and butter to composer/lyricist Maury Yeston, and he writes scores to match. His elegiac music conjures time and place and whether the place is the doomed Titanic ocean liner or Grand Hotel Berlin 1928, the first half of the 20th century seems to be his preferred time.
At this time of post-Brexit xenophobia and with refugees in crisis, Ragtime’s dramatic account of the hardships and hatred faced by early 20th-century immigrants to America is all too timely.
Terrence McNally’s book works seamlessly with Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics to bring EL Doctorow’s 1975 novel to the stage. The story revolves around the interaction of three families: well-established WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) Mother, Father and their Little Boy, with Grandfather and Mother’s Younger Brother; ragtime piano-playing African American Coalhouse Walker and Sarah, the mother of his baby son; and Tateh (Yiddish for daddy), a young Jewish widower newly-arrived from Latvia with his daughter, as well as his hopes. “A Shtetl iz Amereke,” sings Gary Tushaw’s starry-eyed, sympathetic Tateh.