After the massive success of Chicago, another Kander and Ebb musical The Rink is due to be revived in London. WOS reader Richard Forrest spoke to the show s director John Gardyne about his forthcoming production, at Richmond s Orange Tree Theatre....

Tell most residents of Richmond that The Rink is opening again next week, and they ll assume you re referring to the much-missed public ice skating amenity that closed a few years back, rather than the latest revival from the Broadway songsmiths behind Chicago.

That s probably because this story, about a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship set in a run-down roller rink, is one of Kander and Ebb s least known, and indeed, least regarded pieces. It flopped on Broadway in 1984, and managed only a measly 38 performances when it premiered at London s Cambridge Theatre in 1988. However, director Gardyne believes The Rink is a good show which has, in the past, suffered from inappropriate staging.

“It s a small theatre idea,” says Gardyne, “and the danger is, if you put the show on a great big West End or Broadway stage, it just looks cheap.” The show s humble beginnings (it was originally conceived as a ‘chamber piece for off-Broadway) are evident from the economy-size cast. There are just eight actors, who between them perform numerous parts: two lead women, six demolition men, various boyfriends, assorted hoodlums, husbands and lovers. “You think, hang on a minute, if I go and see Miss Saigon, there are fifty people on the stage... they re doing with eight?” says Gardyne.

Naturally, the director doesn t envisage the same problems at the Orange Tree, which is a small fringe theatre in the round. In fact, he believes the tiny stage is the ideal setting for the musical. “The show makes a lot of jumps in time - backwards, forwards, and sideways - so it really demands great involvement from the audience. I think that s one of the things an intimate small theatre is very good at making happen.”

Gardyne is keen to point out that the show has its foundations more in modern American drama, than the classic musical tradition. With a book by distinguished playwright Terrence McNally, The Rink sounds like the anti-thesis of that other musical on skates, Starlight Express. The story can be very moving and sometimes quite funny, whilst touching on some powerful subjects, including rape, alcoholism, and drug taking.

But, as anyone who has recently witnessed Chicago knows, these sort of dark themes are the perfect foil for a Kander and Ebb score, where the witty numbers often carry a savage sting in the tail. As Gardyne says, these songs are a much more integrated part of the narrative than in other musicals, “they just evolved naturally out of the dialogue and the situation, and all the rest of it.”

Following in the well choreographed footsteps of Broadway stars like Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera, are two less stellar, but nevertheless quality performers - Gay Soper who stars as the mother, Anna, and Gillian Kirkpatrick, playing her daughter, Angel. Soper has been treading the boards some twenty years now. Since making her debut on the Broadway stage, opposite Michael Crawford in Billy, she's appeared in everything from Les Miserables, to a number of opera productions. Kirkpatrick, meanwhile, is a young Scottish actress whom the director spotted at a recent Opera North production of Sweeney Todd.

Clearly, Gardyne feels privileged to be finally bringing this revival to fruition. Five years ago, when he first applied to stage The Rink, he was denied the performing rights by Kander and Ebb s agents in New York.

However, they did give Sam Walters (the Orange Tree's artistic director) rights to one of the team s earlier shows, Flora, The Red Menace. In the event, the 1994 production of Flora turned out to be such a success, that the powers that be finally gave The Rink the thumbs up too. As Gardyne says with more than a trace of relief, “it s been a long haul. And I hope it s been worthwhile”.

The Rink previews from today, 21 May, and opens on Tuesday 26 May. Check back next week for Richard Forrest s assessment of Gardyne s efforts.