Leaving Las Vegas

Theatre - Sheridan Morley on a musical that hits all the right notes, a play that misses - and one f

Sometimes, even with Broadway musicals, smaller can be better. In Ragtime, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, working with the dramatist Terrence McNally, have produced the best musical since Les Miserables was first performed 20-odd years ago. The production has had a chequered history: during the original Broadway run, the producer went spectacularly bankrupt (even by theatrical standards) and Ragtime suffered the ignominy of closing midweek.

Five years later, and we can finally see it over here. Ragtime is every note as good as it always was. Like the E L Doctorow novel on which it is based, it tells the history of America at the turn of the 20th century. But by stripping the production down to the bare necessities, the director Stafford Arima has allowed both book and score to come across far more clearly than in the original production.

The show is seen through the eyes of one little boy, who becomes our guide to a nation in the turmoil of its own birth. He introduces us to real-life characters such as the anarchist Emma Goldman, the activist Booker T Washington, Harry Houdini, the banker J P Morgan, and Henry Ford, the car manufacturer. In short, we meet anybody who was anybody in America in the ragtime era, which ran from 1900 to the start of the First World War.

Precious few musicals actually improve in crossing the Atlantic, but McNally and Doctorow have a great story to tell. What is most striking, as the show unfolds in Robert Jones's spartan setting, is not just the terrific score, but the powerful sense of place, time and history itself.

Just as you might be surprised to find Hedda Gabler at the London Palladium, the idea of the long-touring Rat Pack finding a home at the Theatre Royal proves my theory that there's something very odd going on in the West End. For this recreation of a 1950s Las Vegas concert, it might have been better to have played twice nightly at Madame Tussaud's, so unalike are the lookalike trio to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr (as convincing as trying to pass off the Beverley Sisters as the Supremes). I have to confess that, in the interest of self-preservation, I could not make it beyond the interval. There was always the hope that Cliff Richard would come on as John F Kennedy for a celebration finale with fireworks and, preferably, a musical fountain in which the entire cast, not to mention their choreographer and director, would terminally immerse themselves.

The show's subtitle - "Live from Las Vegas" - is distinctly misleading, if not in breach of the Trade Descriptions Act. This show, like its stars, is dead from Las Vegas, or anywhere else, and way beyond any hope of an afterlife. I refrain from naming any of the guilty, in the belief that they will all rapidly need to delete this one from their CVs.

Mum's the Word is a good-natured, more socially acceptable and slightly more male-friendly Vagina Monologues. It's a fine, funny and not very demanding night out with the girls, provided the "girls" are mothers, or intending to embark on motherhood.

Featuring six women on a minimal set, Mum's the Word isn't exactly a play, as there is no plot and almost no structure. Instead, a wealth of recognisable details is mixed in with anecdotes and plenty of jokes. (Imogen Stubbs spends the first half of the evening wearing her cardigan buttoned in all the wrong buttonholes, over scruffy dungarees.) Its origins lie in Vancouver, where a group of theatre professionals got together to write a play. During rehearsals, all they talked about was how to deal with the demands of motherhood, so they turned that into the show instead. One member of that original team, Barbara Pollard, is in the cast at the Albery. It was a huge success all over Canada and the States, toured Scotland, and will certainly find an appreciative audience in England. What we have here are little, often very funny, essays on the state of careers abandoned, sleep deprivation, intellectual poverty, marital and sexual adjustment, the terminal boringness of housework, and the general bloody-mindedness of small children.

Mum's the Word is at its best reminding us that everyone is terrible at this job, no matter how serene they may look.

Ragtime is at the Piccadilly Theatre, London W1 (020 7478 8800) until mid-September

The Rat Pack is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1 (0870 901 3356) until 24 May

Mum's the Word is at the Albery Theatre, London WC2 (020 7369 1740) until 7 June