Rags, Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
Originally something of a Broadway flop, Rags the musical with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Joseph Stein, revised by David Thompson, is currently enjoying and imaginative revival, full of warmth and strong ensemble playing at The Hope Mill Theatre Manchester.
Set in the early 20thcentury Rags tells the story of Rebecca (Rebecca Trehearn) who escapes the anti-Jewish riots in Russia by sailing to America with her son young, David (Lochlan White). On board she meets and establishes a friendship with Bella (Lydia White) who offers her a bed in her cramped family tenement, a job as a seamstress in the family business and an aspiration to make a new life for herself in The Lower East side of New York.
Her talents are quickly recognised by her employer and admirer, Bronfman (Gavin James) and a door of opportunities opens for her to reinvent herself, change her name and cultural identity to embrace and succeed in the American Dream.
However, the Promised Land turns out to be a hotbed of racial tension and exploitation of immigrant workers and Rebecca faces the dilemma of reinventing herself for a better life for her and her son, while her friends face poverty and violence as they strike against their exploitative employers – a choice made more agonising by her affection for handsome, Italian trade unionist ring-leader Sal (Robert Tripolino).
Despite the dark premise, there are moments of warmth and a good deal of humour. The plot is narrated by a Vaudvillesque duo (James Dangerfield and James Hastings) who sing darkly satirical little ditties about the joys of capitalism and its exploitation of ethnic groups and the older characters, Avram and Rachel (Valda Aviks and Michael S. Siegel) are a lovely (albeit clichéd) double act.
The intimacy of the space actually heightens the sense of chaos and claustrophobia, James Nicholson’s lighting design is stunning and brings to life the ingeniously versatile and imaginatively minimal set designed by Gregor Donnelly which is largely comprised of dozens of stacked up suitcases which evoke transience and unrest but also cleverly create a New York skyline.
Olivier award winner Rebecca Trehearn is quite stunning, giving a beautifully nuanced performance with characterisation that combines heart-breaking vulnerability with fiery passion and courage. Her amazing voice and impressive range convey emotional complexity with profound insight and clarity.
Valda Aviks is a charismatic powerhouse and Michael S Siegel’s Avram is warm, fatherly and brilliantly portrayed. Robert Tripolino is sexy and full of Italian machismo, while Gavin James plays Bronfman with just the right balance of charm with a touch of sleaze.
Young Lochlan White plays the role of David (which he shares with George Varley) with impressive gravitas and belts like a West End star.
Indeed, all performances are strong and perfectly in balance with a wonderful and coherent sense of ensemble playing that is not necessarily typical of Musical Theatre but perfectly executed for this great little venue and this rather wonderful, heartfelt reworking of a thirty-year old show.
It’s an absolute treat.
Details and tickets: https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/whats-on/