The Rink is the best revival of a musical currently playing in London. Don’t let unfamiliarity with the show or its score deter you. It a a must see, not the least because of Caroline O’Connor’s gloriously complex and bravura performance.
I had never seen a production of The Rink until tonight, although I was very familiar with the original Broadway Cast recording and loved it. Kander and Ebb worked their magic with the songs.
I have often thought that it is sad – and unfair – that Kander and Ebb seem consigned to be in the shadow of Sondheim, as composers/lyricists in the latter part of the Twentieth Century. They never seem to get the accolades they should given their particular and specific skills. They wrote great musicals, with many fabulous roles for gifted female stars.
Watching Adam Leeson’s virtually flawless production of their rarely performed chamber musical, The Rink, (with a splendid book by Terrence McNally) one can also see that Kander and Ebb found their own way to respond to Sondheim, who by 1984 (when The Rink hit Broadway starring Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli) had written Company and Merrily We Roll Along, both pieces which explored complex and true human relationships.
The Rink is very much in that mould. It carefully and unsentimentally tells of a fractured family – a mother and daughter whose bond was smashed over a lie about the fate of the husband/father and whose ghosts, good memories and demons swirl endlessly in the family business: a roller-skating Rink that is facing demolition. Aspects of Follies seem clear.
It turns out The Rink is a masterful achievement. Leeson’s smart production illuminates every aspect of the writing and Fabian Aloise’s choreography is brilliantly captivating, constantly evocative. Joe Bunker’s musical direction is superb and the small, gifted band really rocks. Bec Chippendale’s set design is clever and efficient, clearly placing the action in its time period and state of general decay. Matt Daw’s lighting and Mike Thacker’s sound design need more care – too often performers are in darkness and the balance between band and singers is not always as it should be.
The casting is remarkably good across the board. Stewart Clarke, who really should be a big West End star, is exactly right as the absent father, the memory of sexual yearning, and the horror of parental disinterest. He sings very well and switches the sexual electricity to high voltage effortlessly.
All the men are excellent but Ben Redfern’s hapless Lenny, Ross Dawes’ fiercely proud Lino, and Jason Winter’s sex God/Nun really stand out. Michael Lin and Elander Moore sparkle when their turn comes as the memories of the Rink churn and vividly come to life. The title song, which the men sing, is absolutely breathtakingly good, funny and thrilling. Hats off to them all.
The strength of the male ensemble also works as a kind of symbol for the patriarchal society in which the two lead characters, Anna and Angel, must fight for survival. Lovers, aggressors, stalkers, workers, bosses, changers and chancers – they are all there, standing in the way or lighting the path for the two women, sometimes both.
Over the decades, I have been fortunate enough to watch Caroline O’Connor create many formidable and remarkable characters in musicals of all types, from West Side Story’s Anita to Mrs Lovett. She is a true theatrical force of nature. But her Anna here is, I think, the very best performance she has given so far in her international career.
She is mesmerising, heart-breaking, fantastically funny and in terrific, full-powered voice. She dances with effortless skill too. But it is her stillness, the subtle etches of pain as the memories pour out and the recriminations fly, that really mark out the depths of her carefully thought through, utterly unmissable performance.
There is a moment when a glitter ball comes to life which is magical, but even more magical is O’Connor’s silent but eloquent response to it. Another moment, late in the show, when a plot twist occurs, is a triumph of restrained desolation. On the other hand, the scene where O’Connor’s Anna is stoned is blissfully, deliciously funny. Combining coarseness and comfort, O’Connor creates a dominant mother every bit a match for Gypsy Rose Lee’s. It’s a phenomenal turn.
Gemma Sutton makes a good Angel, excelling as a moody, cantankerous and rebellious daughter. She shadows O’Connor’s mannerisms and energy, and is every inch her daughter. The camaraderie between the two women, friendly and otherwise, is convincing and compelling. They make the soured mother/daughter relationship achingly real.
The only slight reservation is that Sutton’s voice is not quite sure enough, bright enough at the top of her belt to really permit the show-stopping moment that Colored Lights should be. It’s a small quibble, really, but the role really demands a specific voice type.
I would have preferred no interval. But then I didn’t want it to stop. At all.
I cannot wait to see it again. And again. If only London had the sense to permit/encourage immediate and long transfers of such perfectly conceived and performed shows. This is a show which could wholly capture the attention of even the most casual theatregoer.
A total triumph.