Southwark Playhouse, London – until 23 June 2018
The Rink, now on at the Southwark Playhouse for a month, is one of those shows that defines the beautiful potential of London’s off-West End theatre scene. A little known musical from giants Kander and Ebb, its first outing in the capital some 30 years ago was to be sadly short-lived. Here however, amidst Southwark’s humble thrust and away from the multi-million pound expectations of the mainstream commercial sector, there is an opportunity for this glitter-ball of a show to spin and sparkle.
With faint echoes of Sondheim’s Follies and just a hint of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel too, the action plays out in a dilapidated roller coaster rink somewhere on America’s eastern seaboard. Anna Antonelli is selling the place that has been a family heirloom for generations and as the removals team arrive to clear away the decades of detritus amassed over the years, so too does daughter Angel, estranged from her mother for the past seven years. Kander and Ebb are masters of applying perceptive wit to life’s humdrum highs and lows that define the human condition, and over the course of just one day The Rink’s narrative explores, through a series of flashbacked vignettes, these two women’s stories.
Skating across the decades, Caroline O’Connor and Gemma Sutton are mother and daughter respectively. Both performers at the top of their game, the pair bring vocal magnificence combined with an acting ability in both word and song, that can convey the subtlest of messages, with the finely nuanced denouement of the final act proving a masterclass from both.
O’Connor’s casting adds a further sparkle to the show. Thirty years ago she was one of London’s earliest Angels and this return across the Atlantic, from Broadway’s Anastasia to the modesty of London’s fringe, is an artistic commitment not often seen in today’s hardened money-driven world. O’Connor has a personal heritage that draws on Ireland, England and Australia – but witness her Anna Antonelli and one could swear she’s got Italian DNA too, such is her mastery of the passion and quick one-liners that define her character’s robust resilience.
Six men make up a supporting ensemble – dipping in and out of roles as needed. They are all magnificent and convincing. Stewart Clarke shines as Anna’s long lost husband Dino and there are equally gorgeous turns from a patriarchal Ross Dawes and Ben Redfern as Lenny, a kindly nebbish who’s held a candle for Anna since they were both kids.
Producers Jack Maple and Brian Zeilinger have imbued the highest standards in The Rink. Adam Lenson’s direction is carefully observed, in what is unquestionably his finest work to date while the choreography from Fabian Aloise is breathtakingly audacious. What Aloise achieves in a tiny space, with six guys on skates has to be seen to believed, with the audience’s grins dissolving into whoops of delight. Likewise Bec Chippendale’s set design – complete with panelled floor is another marvel. Rarely is decrepitude so perfectly portrayed with Matt Daw’s ingenious lighting, Tardis-like, transporting this boardwalk fun palace back and forth through the years.
Jason Winter, Michael Lin & Ross Dawes
Sat hidden above the action, Joe Bunker’s band make fine work of this all too rarely heard score. Indeed, from this critic’s personal perspective, it has been a long, long while since seeing a show for the very first time has led to its tunes still being compulsively hummed the next morning!
Yet again, Southwark Playhouse are delivering an outstanding musical for a fraction of the price of a West End ticket. If you love the genre, it’s unmissable.