Douglas Mayo reviews Kander and Ebb's The Rink starring Caroline O'Connor and Gemma Sutton now playing at Southwark Playhouse.
For a small musical The Rink by the powerhouse duo of John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret to name but two) proves itself to be a treasure trove of riches. The musical has a generational conflict as mothergoes head to head with daughter over a long held family business, but scratch the surface and there is so much more to be gleaned. I first saw The Rink at Leicester Haymarket some twenty years ago. Returning to it now with that amount of life experience under my belt I saw many of thethemes of the musical through fresh eyes realising and appreciating Anna's viewpoint all the more.
Kander, Ebb and book writer Terence McNally have created a memory musical of sorts in much the same way that Tennessee Williams did with The Glass Menagerie. It's easy to look at the past with rose-tinted glasses, we've all glamorised the past at some stage in our lives, but with The Rink there is the physical structure of the skating rink itself to contend with. Built with the standards of yester-year, this rink has survived two wars, and whilst superficially decay is significant, it's still a solid structure which has housed the Antonelli's over two generations.
Caroline O'Connor plays Anna. It's a masterful performance from an actor who has musical theatre coursing through her veins. Caroline treats lyrics like a well-mastered second language. It all looks effortless, but it's a well-honed skill that has been studied and mastered. Her Anna is strong, resolute and forward-thinking, but Angel's arrival after seven years sees moments when pain appear like cracks in her Venetian blue crystal. Ultimate care is essential lest they break, and with her bags packed she's not about to let that happen.
Gemma Sutton's Angel is equal parts abrasive daughter and wearied traveller. A few hours later and she would have arrived home to an empty building in the process of demolition. Angel knows all of her mother's emotional buttons and can deploy them with crippling accuracy, but as her back story develops you realise perhaps why Angel has a bullet-proof shell. By the conclusion of All The Children In A Row I know I had teared up as had several of the audience members around me.
It's great to see two such remarkable actors perfectly matched and able to go head to head with this score. There's real family fire in numbers like Don't ‘Ah Ma' Me! which is just as it should be.
Six other actors inhabit the world of The Rink and it's worth the price of a ticket to see the herculean efforts involved in taking on dozens of other roles- male and female – as the past is recounted in a series of flashbacks. Stewart Clarke, Ross Dawes, Michael Lin, Elander Moore, Ben Redfern and Jason Winter can do it all, of that I have no doubt. Whether it's the brashness of numbers like The Rink or subtleties that evoke the feminine as they conjure a neighbour from yesterday, it's theatrical gold! It's an ensemble equalling the best of anything I've seen.
I particularly enjoyed Stewart Clarke's Dino, tormented and trapped post-war in a family business and with a family he doesn't want, Ross Dawes and Ben Redfern's combining with Caroline O'Connor to present what can only be described as deckchair dynamite, and Jason Winter's brief transformation into a nun post Vatican 2. Even in the comedy there is innate honesty.
The cast have been presented with a glorious playground thanks to designer Bec Chippendale. So much detail, solid foundation, obvious decay but light up that mirror-ball and for a brief moment you can imagine this building in it's heyday. Make a point of reading her programme bio too, very moving but she really gets this show! Bec's efforts are perfectly lit by Matt Daw. It's a complex lighting plot that has moments of pin-point accuracy tied with staging that could have come across as overkill, it's to his credit that it never intrudes, but adds to the dramatic action.
Joe Bunker's small but splendid band with new orchestrations by Greg Arrowsmith perfectly compliment the cast and make John Kander's score shine.
Fabian Aloise must be alls et to recreate Starlight Express by now. Getting this ensemble not only skating but almost tapping in roller skates is no mean feat. Together with director Adam Lenson this partnership have created some of the most beautiful moments as with the aforementioned All The Children In A Row. Adam Lenson is fast forging a reputation as a musical theatre director. It's clear that he truly understands the form and musical theatre needs more directors like that. Good musicals can be wonderful but there are no shortcuts and Lenson understands that.
I'm hesitant to use this term but this production of The Rink is a real masterclass in just what can be achieved when you assemble your A team. It's as good as anything in the West End at the moment and certainly deserves a longer life.
In the words of the song “There's nothing to beat The Rink I Think!”
Get your skates on and get a ticket before demolition day on June 23!