Confirming our long-held belief that the best of London musical theatre happens at Southwark Playhouse, their latest production of “The Rink” is a flawless gem. The 10th venture from theatre gods Kander & Ebb, “The Rink” tells the story of Anna, an Italian-American woman with an estranged daughter, who owns a rundown roller-skating rink on the boardwalk by a changing-for-the-worse seaside. The original 1984 production starred Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli as the mother and daughter, so if you were alive to witness that you probably died from the experience. It won Chita the Tony, yet was poorly received by critics, especially sourpuss Frank Rich at the failing New York Times. (Fun fact: Director Rob Marshall was a performer in that production.) I can’t imagine how different that production had to have been from the brilliance that’s occurring at the Southwark Playhouse right now, because it may be the best musical production on a London stage right now and I know I can’t compare myself to the New York Times (I don’t support Nazis, for one), this shit’s gonna be a rave.
A lot of the credit for how winning this production is goes to the star, Caroline O’Connor, who was last seen on Broadway in “Anastasia” hamming it up as the kooky assistant to the queen or whatever grandmama Romanov is. I only know O’Connor as a performer in America, but she’s English and built up a career in Australia first. Incredibly, she understudied the role of Angel, the daughter, in the first London production of “The Rink” in the ‘80s, which helps explain how she seems to understand every nuance of this role and show and sell it so completely. From the very first number, “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” (which I didn’t know was from this so I got excited when I recognized it), she cements herself as a comedic force to be reckoned with, with impeccable timing. It helps that that song is a fantastic way to introduce a funny yet short-tempered woman right off the bat. Kander & Ebb really know what they’re doing.
The opening triumph of “Bottle Washer” is solidified with electrifying performances of song after song that quickly draw you into the show’s drama while making you laugh constantly. The mother-daughter dynamic between Anna and her daughter Angel, played by a fantastic Gemma Sutton, feels so real that you believe it so fully, all their bickering about superficial things and all their struggles to understand each other over the more important issues, all happening as Angel tries to stop her mother from throwing their memories out with their possessions. It’s one of the first times I noticed in a musical that the acting was stronger than the singing. And the singing was pretty good.
What takes this production to new heights is the subtle direction from Adam Lenson, who creates emotional moments that devastate amid the comical parts. The main conceit is that the ensemble members playing the worker crew slide seamlessly between their present day characters and figures from the women’s past, all signified by a change in the lighting or the music. In one of the most superb scenes, Stewart Clarke’s workman would dig into an unmarked box, pull out a blue crystal goblet and ask Anna “what’s this?” and in an instant he would be Anna’s ex-husband Dino giving Anna these goblets for their anniversary. The movement in and out of present and past is impeccably done, and it allows for the high comedy to give way effortlessly to poignant drama. As the show progresses, we see more and more of the past as we are given the opportunity to piece together what happened to drive these two women apart. We see that Dino becomes violent and unstable after he comes back from the war, yet with the same disdain for family life. We see Anna neglect her daughter in an attempt to prove her own desirability, yet risk everything to shield her daughter from the ugly truth.
The flashbacks also describe what happened to this town to leave the rink in such a shambles. A standout ensemble member, Ross Dawes, morphed into one of Anna’s older lady friends with a scarf around his head, as he and the other ‘ladies’ bemoaned the state of things, with hooligans coming in and taking over with their violence and loud music. The guys were really funny in these scenes, so you weren’t prepared for these sweet old ladies’ attempts at standing their ground in front of these thugs to end in serious violence, for Anna too. Everything we see explains and supports her decision to sell and get the hell out of there and not take anything with her, yet everything we see from Angel’s past defends her desire to stay and bring back some of that magic she used to feel as a kid at the rink. She sings often of the colored lights she remembers shining here, and you can’t fault her for wanting to recapture some of the only happiness she’s felt in her life. For a show about whether or not to sell an old roller skating rink, this musical is exceptionally compelling and moving.
Despite the end of the first act dragging a little, there were no bits that I would cut (and that’s saying something because I always want to make cuts), thanks to Kander & Ebb’s great score and Terrence McNally’s strong book. All of it informed the central conflict or reminded the ladies of the good times they had here, like the flashback that included the number we all were waiting for – the dance on roller skates that brought the house down. It was like they were tap dancing, but just happened to be wearing roller skates. This amazing, joyous memory was one that the girls would surely both want to keep, and one of the many in this show that audiences will treasure.
“The Rink” is playing at Southwark Theatre until June 23, and tickets are only $25 (remember that is in pounddollars). If there’s any justice, it should transfer to the West End, although this tiny theatre is an advantage for this show.
The situation at the Southwark is unique, because the building is just a cramped lobby-bar and then a hallway leading to the auditorium. There’s no stage door, and everyone – audience, cast, crew, bartenders – quickly ends up crammed together in this room. Whether you want to meet an actor or not, you’ll end up bumping into them as you come out of the bathroom or wait for a drink. It usually is great because it’s not awkward like it is at stage door; you’re all just occupying this same space and it would be weirder for you not to acknowledge that the actor you’re trying to pass did a great job. However, this was my first bad experience with this set-up. Most of the cast was super friendly and eager to chat, including Gemma and all of the men. But when I and a few other fans (not with me) tried to talk to Caroline, she ignored us. Now, I am the first person to remind fans that no actor ever has to stage door, and whether they decide to or not is completely up to them and they should not be judged on it. But when you are just in a tiny bar talking to people, it is not a good look for you to ignore people who are literally next to you. Caroline spoke with a few guys who knew someone who knew her for a good 20 minutes as we stood there just trying to say hello and great job, and when they mentioned that they would let her get to her other fans (gee thanks), she turned and went to someone that she knew. Despite standing next to her for more than a half hour, she never looked at me or the other girls I was standing with. It’s one thing to not do the whole stage door thing, but to ignore people who are literally next to you, waiting to talk to you just at a bar takes nerve. It kind of broke my heart because I wanted to tell her how amazing her performance was, sure, but also do you know how long I’ve been waiting to meet Nini Legs in the Air? YES THAT WAS HER. Ugh. Anyway. That’s my story. At least the following week Renee Fleming gave me a hug so you know, that’s much better especially since that’s the person who you’d understand being 'above meeting fans' yet wasn’t in the least.