The title number – an ode to the pleasures of the roller-skating rink delivered by a chorus of six men who somehow manage to tap-dance on the stoppers on their rollerskates – is five minutes of pure joy. As choreographed by Fabian Aloise, it might well turn out to be the year’s most spectacular showstopper, never mind that it’s being staged in a 250-seat converted industrial space on Newington Causeway rather than in the West End. The gleefully exuberant performances are an absolute delight, and the icing on the cake is the holy-shit-we-got-through-it-without-breaking-anything look on the actors’ faces as they hold their poses during the applause. It’s sensational, thrilling, and delivers ten times more sheer fun than any of the overblown tap sequences in the Duracell ad currently playing at Drury Lane. If you love musical theatre, you need to see those five minutes, and you’ll probably want to see them more than once (I would, if I didn’t live so far from London). It’s that good.
Unfortunately, that production number arrives halfway through the second act of a show with more than its share of problems, most of them attributable to the writing. Or rather, mostly attributable to Terrence McNally‘s turd of a book, because about two-thirds of the show’s score is top-tier Kander and Ebb, and the few (relatively) duff songs in it are still better than anything you’ll find in some shows that were much bigger hits. The Rink is set in the late 1970s in a dilapidated roller rink somewhere on the US’s eastern seaboard, and McNally’s book consists of two hours of bickering between the rink’s (co-) owner, Anna Antonelli, who has just sold up and is planning to retire, and her estranged adult daughter Angel(a), who left home in her late teens (i.e. in the mid-60s) to join the protest movement. Between the rounds of bickering, we see (many) flashbacks in which the gradual disintegration of Anna and Angel’s relationship is set against the gradual decline of the boardwalk. Occasionally, seemingly almost at random, McNally throws in a couple of zingers, some of which – to be fair – are genuinely funny (Anna: “If you ever see anybody parked in a brown Toyota with his seatbelt on, that’s Lenny.”). It’s clear from the show’s (feeble) attempt to examine the various social changes seen in the US over the roughly thirty-year span covered by the show’s flashbacks that McNally is aiming for something along the lines of a slightly more intimate Follies; what we get, unfortunately, is an uneven hybrid which plays like a warmed-over mother-daughter movie-of-the-week punctuated by lines from an insipid, long-cancelled sitcom, served up with a generous topping of Italian-American clichés. The book, in short, is bad. Really bad. It’s so bad that you’d never guess it was by the same writer who gave us Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Love! Valour! Compassion! (you might, on the other hand, guess it’s by the same writer who gave us Master Class and Deuce). It’s so bad, it includes a scene in which a father melodramatically announces “I have no son!”. It’s so bad that there is not a single moment anywhere in the show where you won’t a) be three steps ahead of what Mr. McNally must have fondly imagined was the plot, and b) be counting the seconds until everybody stops speaking and starts singing again. If you started to count the clichés in McNally’s dialogue you’d either slash your wrists or run out of numbers. There are a lot of 1980s musicals with really bad books. This is one of the worst, and it’s the reason the show has never been a hit.
The score, fortunately, is better – much better – and if you knew the show at all before this production was announced, chances are the score is what made you buy a ticket. The milieu is perfect for Kander and Ebb, and they deliver in spades: Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, an exultant shout of independence from a woman who has spent decades of her life attending to everybody’s needs except her own; Don’t Ah, Ma Me!, a furiously combative mother-daughter duet; Colored Lights, Angel’s gradual realisation that years on the protest trail have left her unsatisfied and unfulfilled; that glorious title song; the always-darkest-just-before-the-dawn ballad We Can Make It; Marry Me, the most self-effacing marriage proposal number ever written (delivered with exquisite restraint on the original Broadway cast recording by a pre-Seinfeld Jason Alexander); and Wallflower, a sensational dance number for Anna and Angel in a flashback sequence at Angel’s spring prom. It’s unfortunate that All The Children in a Row, Angel’s climactic recollection of her journey through the counterculture movement, includes the worst lyric quatrain Fred Ebb ever wrote (“Why’d you have to take that stuff?/Come on, Danny, that’s enough/We can make it, we’ll survive/Danny, you’re too stoned to drive!”), but that’s four lines out of a mostly stellar whole. The original Broadway cast recording, on which Anna and Angel are played by, respectively, Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, is spectacular; both stars are at their peak, and the material is perfect for them (Rivera’s role was written specifically for her) There aren’t many opportunities to hear this music performed live; for some, it’ll be worth gritting your teeth through the awful dialogue for the opportunity to hear this cast tear into these songs.
That’s because the good news is that director Adam Lenson has assembled one hell of a cast for this production. It should probably go without saying that Caroline O’Connor can do no wrong – I mean, the last time I saw her in a show I very nearly founded a religion based on worship of her – but she’s every bit as good an Anna as you’d expect. She dances up a storm, of course, and belts the hell out of Anna’s numbers, but she also miraculously, through sheer force of personality, somehow manages to transcend the dazzling hideousness of McNally’s writing. As Angel, Gemma Sutton doesn’t, but it isn’t her fault: her character is badly short-changed by this version of the script, which is significantly revised from the version seen on Broadway in 1984 (and in Manchester in 1987 and London in 1988). In the original script, the show opens with Angel alone onstage singing Colored Lights, a wistful song about her longing for her childhood home. In this version, the show opens with what was originally the next scene – Anna greeting the wreckers who have come to demolish the rink, announcing her retirement and departure, and singing Chief Cook and Bottle Washer – and Colored Lights doesn’t appear until the end of the first act, where there was originally a short reprise of it. The result, unfortunately, is that Angel enters at the end of what is now the first scene and immediately starts arguing with Anna, and that inevitably means the audience sides against her: this version of the script introduces her as a barrier between Anna and her retirement rather than as a woman looking to rediscover her roots, and that change (which is in the current version of the published script as well) damages the first act quite badly. Ms. Sutton is abundantly talented – she’s a beautifully honest actress and a wonderful singer (she does not, however, deserve the dead polecat masquerading as a wig that she is forced to wear in this production), but this revised version of the script – which incidentally solves almost none of the original script’s problems beyond cutting the cringe-inducing flashback scene between a teenage Angel and her lecherous Uncle Fausto – doesn’t do her any favours. When she finally sings Colored Lights, it’s a gorgeous performance.
The rest of the roles – yes, all of them – are played by the six wreckers Anna hires to demolish the rink: Stewart Clarke, Ross Dawes, Michael Lin, Elander Moore, Ben Redfern, and Jason Winter. They’re all flawless, and their two musical numbers – that fabulous title song in Act Two, and the witheringly sarcastic After All These Years in Act One – are among the production’s great highlights. There’s equally flawless musical direction from Joe Bunker, whose seven-piece band sounds terrific, and Bec Chippendale does as much as anybody could to recreate the faded grandeur of a roller rink on the Jersey shore within the confines of the Southwark Playhouse’s auditorium and budget. There’s even a glitterball, and it looks magical under Matt Daw’s lighting. The production, overall, is just about as good as it could possibly be – but it’s a good production of very, very problematic material. You’ll want to see it for O’Connor and the rest of the cast, for that sensational title song, and for the chance to hear this score performed live. It is more than worth the Southwark Playhouse’s standard £25 ticket price. While the musical numbers, though, are genuinely thrilling, don’t be surprised if the show as a whole leaves you unmoved, even given the fiercely committed performances from the two leading actors. Don’t be surprised, either, if you find yourself taking an inner journey during the dialogue scenes. A lot of what you’ll see is very entertaining – but this is, in the end, a superlative production of a show that just doesn’t work.