Review: The Rink (Southwark Playhouse)

Kander and Ebb’s rarely seen musical is revived at the Southwark Playhouse

L-R Jason Winter, Michael Lin and  Ross Dawes in The Rink
L-R Jason Winter, Michael Lin and Ross Dawes in The Rink
© Darren Bell

Round and round and round we go. Written at the height of one recession, Kander and Ebb's overlooked musical The Rink returns in the wake of another, and its story of a small business shutting shop and selling up feels as pertinent in London today as it must have as New York pulled itself back from the brink of bankruptcy in the early eighties. Both cities gave developers free reign, and great gains came with great losses in tow.

So it is on the boardwalk of a struggling east coast seaside resort, where Anna Antonelli (Caroline O'Connor) is packing up the retro roller disco she inherited from her father-in-law. It's due for demolition to make way for some car park or concrete block, when her runaway, rebellious daughter Angel (Gemma Sutton), walks back through the door. If, after seven years, their relationship remains fractious – mother critical, daughter dismissive – it slowly softens with shared memories, as the old building, their family home, gives up its ghosts, Follies-stylee.

Their battle boils down to preserving the past or moving with the times, but while Angel's determined to restore the rink to its former glories, Anna's all to aware that it's had its day. That tussle finds echoes in their family history: Anna's husband Dino walked out after serving in Korea. The man Angel remembers isn't the one her mother married, and two versions of a disputed past slowly cohere.

It adds up to an eloquent expression of that old truth: what goes around, comes around – like so many skaters rolling laps of a rink. One generation's mistakes shape the next, and rebel kids come full circle as they too grow up. Wars roll around, youth culture moves on, and the present razes and replaces the past.

So even if Terence McNally's plots are bog-standard, The Rink's thinking is anything but: it's layered tender and deft. Really, it's a study in nostalgia – its comforts as well as its traps. Watch a gaggle of burly, brusque demolition men strap on their skates and give in to the rink's retro charms and you'll see weathered working-class masculinity melt into innocent, unguarded glee. Yet Angel's mistake is to sugar-coat the past: to see only the good times and skate over the bad. Kander and Ebb make the point musically, as contemporary sounds slide into something tunefully old-hat – the Rat Pack rapport of "The Apple Doesn't Fall" and the saccharine sentiment of "Marry Me". They underscore their songbook with woozy fairground waltzes, so that even the music goes round in circles.

If it feels dated, it's because both book and score leave space for dance numbers and set-pieces, and Adam Lenson's otherwise articulate staging indulges its twinkle instead of insisting on its truth. At times, it feels like a precursor to Fun Home. At others, a flashback to the Broadway of old. But there's no denying the chemistry and comedy of its two leading ladies: O'Connor finds the soft centre of the hardened, sardonic single mother, while Sutton's Angel hides her old vulnerabilities beneath a flinty exterior and a chip on her shoulder – truly, her mother's daughter.