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Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Book by Terrence McNally
Southwark Playhouse, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Forget returning to Chicago for the umpteenth time (yes, THAT revival is back in town) instead get down to the musical powerhouse that is the Southwark Playhouse and enjoy this spirited revival of one of Kander & Ebb's most under rated shows.
This one also has great hummable tunes (they even named their memoirs after one, 'Coloured Lights') and a tart but heartfelt book and yet on its premiere outing on Broadway in 1984 it totally bombed. It happens to the best of them but this revival makes a very strong case for it. It was written for two megastars, Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, playing mother and daughter and perhaps Liza laid on the schmaltz with a trowel and it was no match for the early '80s zeitgeist. 34 years later, it is ripe for reassessment.
Set in the 70s, with its fashion crimes, it's the story of a sassy, hardboiled mother Anna (Caroline O'Connor) who is selling up the family business, a run-down Roller Rink on a decaying Boardwalk and retiring to Florida, when her daughter Angel (Gemma Sutton) suddenly reappears after a 7 year absence and tries to stop the sale.
Director Adam Lenson rolls back the showbiz sentiment and throws the focus instead on the central family breakdown and all its collateral damage. It's a story about everybody's need for home – both to run away from and to come back – and how we define it.
Initially mutually hostile the mother and daughter eventually bond, albeit aided by some dope, in the great number 'The Apple Doesn't Fall'. Despite appearances this is no wallow in nostalgia. Kander and Ebb wittily mock a trio of old ladies bemoaning how their beloved Boardwalk has been ruined by the youth with their ghetto blasters and their sympathies lie elsewhere. Like Follies, it's a warning about the folly of living in the past.
Typically for Southwark Playhouse they conjure up magic from very little. Bec Chippendale's designs simply evoke the faded grandeur of the old hall and what is even more astonishing is how choreographer Fabian Aloise manages to stage a full production number of the title song featuring the male ensemble on roller skates. It's a wondrous feat of control and precision on this postage stamp stage and it rightly brings the house down.
Gemma Sutton grounds the character of Angel in a way which Liza probably didn't. A totally engaging performer she's blessed with a powerful voice and the taste never to belt it. The talented male ensemble double or triple up roles and Stewart Clarke, although quite young, brings a poignancy to Dino, the handsome, battle scarred, father who ran off. But the show is another triumph for O'Connor whose style is Old School, but in a good way. She manages to combine a dancer's grace and athleticism, with the sass of a great comic and yet she can still break your heart when required on a dramatic moment.