If you think a musical about the potential demolition of a boardwalk roller rink in the 1980s sounds niche, you’d be right: it is, very. Yet the themes explored in The Rink, directed by Adam Lenson at the Southwark Playhouse, of family, loss and the passing of time are universal. This piece even manages to feel quite topical, with a focus on the lives of two women taking centre stage – a mother and a daughter – and an exploration of generational difference takes place surrounded by feminist themes relating to the role of women in the family, in the workplace, and in the political world.
The first thing that strikes you walking into the space is the wonderfully evocative set, designed by Bec Chippendale. It is fitting that Chippendale used bits and bobs sourced from the sheds of her late father to create a cross-generational space; it feels genuinely like an old roller rink, something you might stumble into mouldering on a pier yet still vibrant with the decades of leisure days and nights that have been passed within it’s walls. The lighting courtesy of Matt Daw is also stunning, with a complex design that adds enormously to the performance as it subtly and unobtrusively supports for the most part, with a few glorious moments of taking centre stage in a quite literally dazzling display. It is colourful and glittery, evoking the past glory and fun of the rink with style and lustre, whilst cool spotlights pinpoint moments of past tension and present trauma.
Musical numbers are vivacious and pitched perfectly for the size of the space we are in, with a seven person band tucked up on a mezzanine level above the back of the stage. The live music again is an enormous pleasure, adding depth and spark to this show with all the fullness of a complete orchestra. The music by John Kander is catchy and varied, incorporating the jingles of the fairground, and the lyrics by Fred Ebb are witty and meaningful, and although I occasionally struggled to make out a few words here and there for the most part they rang through above the music in an excellent balance. There is a particularly fantastic moment in the first half when the music and lyrics reach levels of comedic genius, the male cast members performing in jaunty barber-shop style around the two fuming, feuding women. There is also what can only be described as an absolutely show-stopping barnstormer of a sequence, performed entirely on roller skates – all praise to the choreographic team headed by Fabian Aloise and (with one of the best titles I’ve seen in a theatre programme) the Skate Captain Ross Dawes. The choreography across pieces is tight, snappy and clever, with fantastically slick transitions keeping the show spinning. This show is physically demanding of its actors, with all required to multi-role on some level, whether that is the inhabitation of the same character at different ages or, to take one of the most striking examples, the total transformation from builder, to rough kid, to nun. Yes, really.
Which brings me to the real reason anyone should see this show: the jaw-droppingly, gorgeously talented cast. The whole cast are wonderful performers, taking the complexities of the multi-rolling, demanding choreography and a tight stage space in their stride. The overture felt a little weak, and the thick Italian-America accents had me feeling slightly concerned, but these quibbles proved unfounded as the show progressed: it is a vocally strong and varied cast, with each individual voice keeping its own character, and the accents were really delicious. Gemma Sutton as Angel is great, and delivers a compelling performance tracking through the emotional complexities of her character with vocal dexterity, but the stand out star has to be Caroline O’Connor as Anna, the mother and matriarch of the rink. O’Connor’s comedic timing is flawless, her voice soars and she inhabits this bold and rambunctious character completely and utterly. The audience were wound round her little finger from the moment she stepped on to the stage, and she moves from the rawly emotional to the hilarious with consummate ease. The two lead actresses develop a wonderful and moving relationship that is utterly convincing, and it is their understanding of one another and of themselves that sits at the glowing heart of this gem of a show.
The performance lags a little in the second half, with the narrative feeling slightly more disjointed and perhaps straining a little at the seams of emotion. However, this does nothing to detract from what is ultimately a fun and fabulous belter of a show. You’ll wanna go round this rink, I think.