“Pave paradise, put up a parking lot”. A certain Joni Mitchell song shares some melancholy energy with this rarely staged musical, a hymn to what’s lost when ‘progress comes’ – and what isn’t. I’m sort of mesmerised by that moment where a place becomes nothing – or, equally, the moment just before a place becomes nothing. Sondheim’s musical Follies is lent even more poignancy (and it’s already very, very poignant) by the fact that its reunion of former showgirls happens in a theatre that’s going to be demolished the next day. The Rink, written just over a decade after Follies in 1984, has some of the same nostalgic sting – it’s about a family-owned roller rink in a decaying seaside resort, that’s on the brink of being demolished to become a car park. But in typical Kander and Ebb style, there’s a harshness and cynicism to this elegy – a sense that some things are too toxic for any other treatment than being paved over, covered up like nuclear waste.
Bec Chippendale’s set is glorious, a delicate array of whimsical columns and faded technicolour decoration. This rink looks magical, especially through the cobwebs: but Terrence McNally’s book is careful to show that its magic is both misleading and oppressive. It’s trapped Anna into a lifetime of thankless labour, its lustre fading despite her hours of scrubbing. And her daughter Angel has spent the entirety of her ’20s trying to escape it in hippy communes and adventures on the road – only a decade away from her family business can make her see its charm.
Adam Lenson’s production pulls the focus tightly onto this Italian-American mother-daughter pairing, one originally played on Broadway by Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli. Caroline O’Connor makes an eye-drawingly glamorous, fierce Anna, lit up with the energy that’s come with deciding to let go of the past. Playing her daughter Angel, Gemma Sutton is softer, full of an endearing mix of spirited independence and uncompromising childishness – her voice lends strength and emotional intensity to a score of songs that dredge over three decades of the family’s history.
The all-male supporting cast, morphing from present-day demolition men to ghosts from the past, are sometimes less convincing: partly because an extra row of seating round the edge of the stage cuts the playing space down to an elbow-jostlingly small patch. There’s not much room for roller-skating pizzazz and the ’50s style jazzy numbers that are designed to conjure up the rink’s heydey.
What there is room for is decades worth of unspoken pain, and for insights into gendered labour and sexual double standards. Anna’s story has the feel of some of the cruellest fairy tales. Her husband Dino seduces her with gifts, blue crystal glasses from Murano, then relies on her labour as he turns distant, cold and emotionally abusive, finally leaving her to run the rink alone. A palace of amusements becomes her prison. And her relationship with Angel is warped by a sense of mutual betrayal: Angel can’t forgive her for her gossip-provoking affairs with other local men (cue a raunchy Chicago-style number) and Anna can’t forgive Angel for leaving her, too.
There’s a sharply drawn emotional realism to this mother-daughter relationship which is rarely seen in musical theatre – perhaps because instead of moving forward, its narrative needles away at the past, old resentments unravelling like a cheap dress at a humiliating high school dance. And it’s coupled with a compelling cynicism about the world outside, where amusement arcades and rollercoasters and cheap thrills are giving way to a tougher world of gang violence. Rollerskating doesn’t stand a chance.
Ultimately, the rink comes down. And despite its ritzy nostalgia, McNally’s clear-eyed, sentimentality-free story makes a case for laying waste to the past, and for leaving old pain trapped under the rubble.
The Rink is on at Southwark Playhouse until 23rd June. More info here.