The Rink – Southwark Playhouse, London

Music: John Kander

Lyrics: Fred Ebb

Book: Terrence McNally

Director: Adam Lenson

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

There’s a huge amount going on in The Rink, from the mother/daughter relationship issues, the comedy of characters from past lives and some serious exploration of middle America. So is it a good or a bad thing that the shining, lingering image after this show is of an outstanding six man roller-skated high-energy dance routine?

The bouncy, raucous musical is focussed on the eponymous roller skating rink in a seaside boardwalk on the US’ East Coast. Faded and decrepit, it’s just been sold for demolition, the builders have arrived to tear it down, the owner (Anna) is about to leave. Interrupting everything, Anna’s daughter (Angel) shows up again after seven years and we take a look at the powerful forces that shape both their lives.

The parent/child relationship is at the core of this. Anna’s husband Dino’s family owned the rink, then it got passed to Anna when Dino abandoned her and Angel. This thread, of abandonment, fighting, jealousy, frustration and poor mental health inspires real anger. The impact of his leaving, the fallout that twisted both these women’s lives, inspires tears. Acute and incisive, this small story of an abandoned wife struggling to run a business, take care of a child, and stop the loneliness is heady stuff.

Introduced by a ballsy, confident song where Anna waves goodbye to the woman she was in Chief Cook and Bottle Washer before her new florida life, the tone is set for an uncompromising show. There’s somance with songs like Blue Crystal and defiant hope from Angel as she plans for the future in Angel’s Rink and Social Centre, but the overall feeling with the outstanding music (John Kander) and lyrics (Fred Ebb) is a full and complete picture of tough lives. Backed with whip-smart musical performances, each song is perfectly crafted, a perfect chip with every line to reveal something beautiful.

As it’s from the East Coast, there’s a lot of fun had with the accent and characters. No one gets to say “fugghedaboutit” but it’s close. As Anna, Caroline O’Connor has the finest lines, cracking wise pugnaciously whenever possible, cracking with her daughter’s provocation to reveal a hurt, scarred woman driven by hope something better is about to come along. Gemma Sutton as Angel is more human, less character, than Anna and is the catalyst around which some of the best songs (Don’t “Ah Ma” Me) revolve. Between the two, they chard a powerful path through marital difficulty, growing up, female friendships and relationships and what it means to be a mother, not just a parent.

It all takes place in the one location, the skating rink, and Bec Chippendale’s set design is a real triumph. Faded boardwalk glory, a monument to “what was and what could have been”. Lit by an effervescent, creative design from Matt Daw, it’s the sort of space and atmosphere you could imagine cosy things happening in, but if they turn bad, they’re really bad. Perfectly pitched.

It’s a blast of a musical. Mixing perfect performances from the backing cast with super vocals and snappy dance moves alongside a story that genuinely has meaning and depth. From the creative duo that created the music and lyrics for Chicago, with an excellent cast and crew to produce it, was it ever going to be anything else? Go in with high expectations, leave extremely energised and satisfied.

Runs until 23 June 2018 | Images: Darren Bell


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