I’ve always had a slight love/hate relationship with Kander and Ebb musicals; never able to find a bad word about Cabaret, but struggling to see the appeal of Chicago. I have long admired the score of The Rink, but its last West End engagement was in 1988, quite a bit before my theatre-going time, so the current and long overdue revival at Southwark Playhouse gives me, and many others, their first taste of this boardwalk musical, even if it is a different version to the ones that have come before.
Modern audiences may struggle to identify with the setting of a roller-skating rink, and although roller-discos did make a brief comeback in the early 2000’s, it’s always been more of an American pastime. This particular Rink has fallen in to disrepair, and owner Anna Antonelli has sold up to move the sunnier Florida coast. As the demolition team arrive, so does Anna’s prodigal daughter. The plot doesn’t really move much forward from this point, instead the mother/daughter pair attempt to reconcile their differences through flashbacks, with the demolition team taking on the characters of husbands, lovers and friends long gone.
It comes as no surprise that Olivier nominated, Broadway star Caroline O’Connor is truly wonderful in the role of Anna, her vocals are like cool silk on a warm night, and when the character sings with daughter Angel, it’s utterly enchanting. O’Connor’s approach to the acerbic put-downs, and her devilish giggle makes The Rink feel more hopeful than mean-spirited.
The role of Angel was originally played by Liza Minnelli, and so I assumed, perhaps mistakenly, that this would be a brazenly assertive character. However, Gemma Sutton plays the role with a great deal more subtlety than that, instead teasing out the vulnerability and tenderness of a little girl grown up too soon, or too late depending how you look at it.
While O’Connor and Sutton are definitely the stars of the show, the male ensemble complement them beautifully. There are some really touching scenes with Stewart Clarke and Ross Dawes acting as husband and father in law respectively, and Ben Redfern is particularly endearing as Lenny. But it’s when this talented troupe, completed by Michael Lin, Elander Moore and Jason Winter, put on their skates that things get really interesting.
Fabian Aloise has again created the most amazing choreography. Some of these routines are stunning, especially in the second act title number, where things that shouldn’t happen on roller skates, happen! The only downside is the bigger routines feel a little restricted on the Southwark Playhouse stage, it would be wonderful to see this choreography on a larger stage, where Aloise could really let loose.
That famous score is in good hands with musical director Joe Bunker, and is given an added richness by the intimate setting. The set looks authentic and helps set the scene well, an old dance board sits above the stage, while the cast meander around packing boxes filled with a lifetime of memories.
Director, Adam Lenson has taken a decades old musical and made it feel timeless and engaging. The casting is a dream, and the whole ensemble work together to create a feeling of tenderness and acceptance. This magical production of The Rink tips that love/hate relationship of mine firmly back in to the positive.