BWW Review: THE RINK, Southwark Playhouse
Angel has been away for years, off to find herself (and maybe someone else too) in California, in narcotics, in the arms of more men than she can remember. But she turns up at the family's decrepit New York skating rink, the 50s and 60s craze now long faded at the end of the 70s, to find her mother, Anna, still bears the same old grudges, still flings the same old insults and still wants the last word on everything. And now she's selling The Rink and tearing it down.
Terrence McNally's book takes an age to get going, the first half largely flashbacks, telling us what we know the moment the two women walk on stage - honestly, Libby Todd's costume design is plenty enough, if you get delayed en route and arrive an hour late.
That would be a shame though, because there's more to musical theatre than character development and plot - and that's where this production really er... scores.
Kander and Ebb have seats in the pantheon musical greats and, while some tunes feel a little like they didn't make the cut for Cabaret or Chicago, well songs can do that and still be pretty fine.
They need singing of course, and not just singing, but belting, emoting, even living, because as much as your brain is saying, "Yeah, I know. I know. I know.", your heart is saying, "I like these women and I want to spend time with them." That's due to the fact that we can see from the very start that, no matter how much has come between mother and daughter over the last 15 years, there's much more pushing them together.
So casting (as so often in revivals of musicals or plays that had a lukewarm reception a generation or so ago) is critical, and hats off to Jacob Sparrow who found the perfect pair to make the humdrum narrative take flight.
Caroline O'Connor no-nonsenses her way through "Chief Cook and Bottle Washer" (a kind of "I don't want..." song) telling us what were pretty certain of anyway - this is a strong woman who has made her own life, but has vulnerabilities just below the skin for all that. Gemma Sutton gets her "I don't want..." song straight away as a riposte with "Don't "Ah Ma" Me" and a rather pleasing meta competition is set up between the old school Broadway pipes of Ms O'Connor and the more intimate style of Ms Sutton. The two women look great and sound great - and deliver the inter-generational hate-you-love-you with pinpoint accuracy.
The six guys in the cast play a variety of roles, Stewart Clarke getting the meatiest as Dino, Anna's absent husband, Angel's absent father and your full-on emotionally constipated Italian stereotype. There are times when one feels that the lads are there for decoration (and they do some of their best work in avoiding simply standing about like it's gone all Brecht), but that changes when - like butterflies emerging on a summer's day - they suddenly skate wonderfully in the show's title number. In an instant, we see just why The Rink has such an emotional pull on anyone who went there, the stakes suddenly raised. Showstoppers can be ten a penny on a Press Night, but this would halt a rainy matinee in Cleethorpes - Bravo!
The second half speeds the plot at last and there's a nice little denouement that (for once in shows like this) does not feel forced, but entirely natural - mercifully so, as my sentimentality gauge was already flashing red.
If all a musical has to commend it are the songs, the performances and a barnstorming dance routine, it's getting a lot more right than it gets wrong. Director, Adam Lenson, more than justifies the decision to revive the show and stages it with the brio and intimacy a space like this one can promote. I suspect The Rink might not convert too many musical theatre sceptics to the genre, but it'll please fans. It'll really please fans.