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Review - The Rink at Southwark Playhouse

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

"I want to go round the rink/ There's nothing to beat the rink I think," goes a lyric and you will, too, as you watch this revival of a rarely-seen 1984 Kander and Ebb scored Broadway musical The Rink At a time when one of their most celebrated musicals - Chicago - has recently returned to the West End - a show about the cult of celebrity that is itself a demonstration of it with its rotating round of stunt cast leading players (Cuba Gooding Jr is soon to be followed by former Spandau Ballet singer Martin Kemp) - it is refreshing to see this far more modest and uncynical show about a single mother and her adult daughter's tangled reconciliation given a production of real integrity.

Chicago, which is also still running on Broadway in the shimmering, lean revival that first returned the show there in 1996, has become the longest-running American musical in Broadway history; by contrast, The Rink mustered an original run there of less than eight months, despite the presiding presence of two of Broadway's greatest stars of the time Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli. And their shadow still looms large over the show as they're on the original cast recording, and are an intimidating act to follow.

But Caroline O'Connor and Gemma Sutton are unfazed, and pull it off triumphantly. O'Connor, a veteran of the London and Australian stage who has just returned from a stint on Broadway as a featured player in the original production of Anastasia there, has swapped Broadway's bright lights for the coloured lights of a roller rink on the Eastern seaboard that's about to be demolished, in the gritty, close-up intimacy of Southwark Playhouse.

Beautifully summonsed in Bec Chippendale's design of the derelict venue that's full of evocative faded glory, there's an echo of Sondheim's Follies: just as that show is about the regrets of the past and trying to make peace with the present as an old theatre is to be torn down, so The Rink is a more domestic-scaled story about the same thing between a mother and her adult daughter as the roller rink the mother has inherited faces a similar fate. In Terrence McNally's moving but occasionally over-earnest book, they revisit the ghosts of the past that played out here, and the mother's dysfunctional relationship with her daughter's father Dino who abandons them.

Now estranged for the last seven years, after the daughter Angel moved to California, this is a musical that moves freely between past and present, and a versatile cast of six men variously populate the demolition workmen, deserting husband (Stewart Clarke), father-in-law (Ross Dawes) and former suitors that vied for the mother's attention. (They're also all nifty on rollerskates; by a bizarre coincidence the original production of The Rink opened on Broadway just a month ahead of the West End debut of Andrew Lloyd Webber's rollerskating spectacle Starlight Express, but whereas actors there were impersonating trains, this is a musical about humans). 

Some of the songs from Kander and Ebb's underrated score subsequently had a further life in the revue The World Goes Round, but its lovely to hear them reinstated in a storytelling context here, and there's some seriously haunting melodies here like "Blue Crystal", "Coloured Lights" and "All the Children in a Row", as well as the usual Kander and Ebb wit and grit in songs like of nostalgia like "What Happened to the Old Days" and optimistic uplift like "We Can Make It".

Musical theatre aficionados will not want to miss this rare opportunity to catch up with this show, but it's also a musical for anyone with regrets about the past and trying to forge a new future. Which is just about all of us.

The Rink is at Southwark Playhouse until 23rd June. 

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