The Theatreguide.London Review
Southwark Playhouse Spring 2018
Kander and Ebb's 1984 musical is much better than its reputation as a flop (less than 6 months on Broadway, less than a month in London) would suggest.
It has excellent songs and the opportunity for two bravura star performances. And this new revival is limited only by budget and scale in bringing out all that is admirable and exciting about the show.
Terence McNally's book may be the weakest link. A skating rink has fallen victim to a changing neighbourhood and changing tastes in entertainment, and the woman who ran it is letting it be torn down by developers. But her long-estranged daughter idealises it as her magical childhood home and fights to save it.
Their arguments generate flashbacks that show us what it really was like back then and what their lives have been like since, secrets are revealed, truths are told and – spoiler alert – a kind of happy ending is reached.
If the storyline smacks a bit too much of the mechanical and predictable, it does set up the two central characters – in fact they're essentially the only two characters, a small male chorus doubling and tripling roles as Everyone Else – and provide a framework for the songs.
While the original production may have balanced the two starring roles – on Broadway, Chita Rivera and Liza Minelli, so we're talking major candlepower – the undisputed star of this revival is Caroline O'Connor as the mother.
O'Connor was once in a one-woman show called Bombshells, and she brings immense energy to the stage along with the too-rare quality of both singing and acting.
She can belt out a song like no one since Ethel Merman, but unlike even Merman she actually listens to the words she's singing and convinces us that her character is thinking and feeling them.
She is onstage almost continuously, and either solo or part of most of the songs, and it is both the emotional depth of her characterisation and the power of her performance that carry the show.
As fine as Gemma Sutton is as the daughter, she simply can't match the electricity of her co-star's performance.
The book doesn't help her, holding off her first big song until late in Act One, and it isn't really until the First Act finale, Coloured Lights, that she gets to take over the stage and show us what we've been missing as she makes the most of the song and the moment.
The Kander and Ebb songs are fully up to the standard of Chicago and Cabaret, and only lack of familiarity stands in their way.
John Kander's music ranges from comic patter song to evocative ballad to Jerry Herman-style anthem, always retaining his personal and original sound.
Fred Ebb's lyrics were always at their best when they could have a dark edge, and that's true here as well. That patter song is a catalogue of complaints, the mother-daughter bonding song The Apple Doesn't Fall celebrates the pair's shared flaws and mistakes, and the daughter's best song, Coloured Lights, quietly and sympathetically exposes both the emptiness of her life and the impossibility of her fantasies.
(On the other hand, All The Children In A Row tries to cover too much exposition and too many side issues, and collapses under its own weight.)
Director Adam Lenson and choreographer Fabian Aloise keep things flowing smoothly, with an unobtrusive pattern of circular and arc-like movements subliminally evoking the roller rink.
We know from the beginning that there must eventually be a dance on roller skates, and there are actually two, each in a different way a thoroughly deserved show-stopper.
The Rink might have life beyond its one-month run in Southwark, and certainly warrants it. But just in case it starts and ends here, get your skates on and rush to see it.
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