|Gemma Sutton and Caroline O'Connor in rehearsal for The Rink|
Commencing performances this week at the Southwark Playhouse, The Rink is a musical set in an American boardwalk-located roller skating rink that has long since seen better days. The show examines the relationship between the rink’s owner, Anna and her daughter Angel, two women who have grown apart over the years and written by Kander and Ebb, from Terrence McNally’s book, it is the rich complexity of human relationships that drives the narrative.
What makes this particular musical on London's fringe quite so mouthwatering however is its casting of Caroline O'Connor to play Anna. Thirty years ago, when the show first played in the West End, at London’s Cambridge Theatre, a young O'Connor appeared as Angel.
O'Connor is making an incredibly bold and confident move in stepping back from an acclaimed Broadway run of Anastasia and heading instead to the humble surrounds of the Elephant and Castle. Over a beautifully sunny weekend during the show’s rehearsals, I caught up with O'Connor to talk not only about the show, but also her remarkable career.
JB: Lets start with The Rink first time around. Tell me all about it....
Caroline: Well, it was an amazing opportunity really. I'd been in the Me and My Girl original company and then Cabaret with the Gillian Lynne production and also A Chorus Line on national tour, playing Cassie, when the chance came along to cover Angel in the West End. Additionally, with a lot of leading ladies liking to take a show off of their schedule, (I was understudying Diane Langton) I was guaranteed one performance a week which seemed like a pretty good deal in those days.
Fred Ebb came over. John Kander was there so I had the two writers sitting in the auditorium on the day I did my first understudy call on stage, which was quite terrifying! But of course it was also thrilling for me, as a girl who grew up in Australia and just having arrived in England for a few years, to have the actual composers there in the room, along with Terrence McNally too.
Sadly the production did not last for very long and you could feel a great sense of loss amongst the theatre community. But now I feel like it's full circle. Perhaps, I was meant to come back and revisit this beautiful show and get to play the role of Anna. I'm the biggest fan in the world of Chita Rivera (who created the role of Anna on Broadway), she's such an inspiration to me. This show is huge.
JB: Explain more, please, about the story and the themes of The Rink.
Caroline: Well, it's a mother/daughter relationship. Angel is a young spirit, and she's gone away, like young people did at that period in the Woodstock kind of finding themselves and having more freedom. Anna however is this poor woman who’s been left with this business to run, this rink, and her daughter's gone and she's kind of kept this thing going.
The rink belonged to her husband's family, for many years. And, suddenly, she's thinking, "You know what? I think I need some time for myself." And, as soon as she makes that decision, in walks the daughter again. And so kicks off an amazing story of: Will they connect or will they always have this fractious relationship?
It's not just us of course. There are six other men in the show who are brilliantly versatile and extremely talented. They play the show’s other roles, the wreckers, but they also play very important characters in the story, like husband, grandfather, love interest. Just terrific, beautiful voices, great talent.
Adam Lenson our director is rejigging it a little here and there and we have a brilliant choreographer too, Fabian Aloise, who did Working recently. I did West Side Story with him years ago, so we have a connection already. There is a young team around me, which is kind of exciting because of this energy that they bring, and they're all so excited and keen, and it's a lovely feeling in the room.
And Gemma Sutton who plays Angel in the show is just so very talented. I mean, from the moment we met, we just clicked and that's always a blessing when you're doing something where you have to work so closely. And, especially a relationship where it's not exactly a love fest!
JB: The last time that I heard you sing in London was at The Kings Of Broadway concert at the Palace Theatre. You sang Time Heals Everything from Mack and Mabel that was just gorgeous. You of course played (an Olivier nominated) Mabel when the show opened in the West End in 1995.
Caroline: Thank you. The most wonderful time I've probably ever had was doing that show. Of course I have loved pretty much everything I've ever done, but I loved Mack and Mabel because although it's a difficult show #I never found it as difficult as a lot of people who would always say, "Oh, the book's not that good."
I never found that a problem, because I felt like we told the truth about Mabel Normand’s life, and I thought she was worth celebrating. She was such an incredible person, not only as an actress, but she was the first female director, and there were so many elements and she just wore here heart on her sleeve.
I had a lot of help too. I met Mabel’s great- nephew and we discussed a lot about her, I saw photos, and he actually gave me a couple of gifts, of items that had belonged to her. So, I felt very fortunate that I had that real insight into her through that contact.
JB: Tell me a little about your work in Kander & Ebb's Chicago – a show that you’ve played around the world: on Broadway and in Australia, as well as over here.
Caroline: I played Velma in Australia and on Broadway, I played Roxie at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre as well as in Lebanon. I've done the show quite a few times and actually I did Chicago twice in Australia, 11 years apart, would you believe! You have to get yourself incredibly fit for Velma, which I quite enjoy too when it's necessary. I was torn the last time, because I was very tempted to do Roxie again, but I’m lucky that I've been able to get to play both those roles. And, now, here with The Rink, this is kind of weird, because now I'm playing both of those roles too.
JB: And what about your own story?
My parents were Irish so I got sent to Irish dancing classes. The school I went to taught ballet so I auditioned and got into the Royal Ballet School when I was 17. That brought me to London, so that's when I fell in love with London. When I went back to Australia at 19, I was like, "Do I keep going with the ballet or not?" I wasn't like, "Oh, I want to be a big star." That wasn't my mentality. It was always that I wanted to work in theatre. I wanted to learn and to work with great directors and choreographers and people. So, I'm glad that it happened that way, and I'm glad that my success came even if it was a little later, because I had such great training up until then.
JB: So, where is home for you now?
Caroline: I have homes in Surrey and Sydney and I am lucky enough to have worked all over the world and create a pretty amazing lifestyle and also a pretty amazing, understanding husband too.
I met him when I was doing Cabaret here in London so, we've been together for 32 years and not everybody in the industry has that kind of support system. You know those sad, tragic stories you hear about people who're in theatre and they have a great career but they have nobody at home, or they have a bit of sadness, I feel really blessed that I've had this amazing, constant love and support in my life. Without sounding too corny, it's true. And, he also just loves what we do. He loves that we travel and that we're both very passionate about music and about theatre.
JB: You walked away from Anastasia on Broadway to do The Rink. What lay behind that decision?
Caroline: People say to me, "why did you come back from New York to do a show at the Southwark Playhouse?” and my reply is because this is what I do. This is my work." I'm still in a black box. I'm still in a theatre. I'm still doing what I love to do, and I would've kicked myself if I hadn't done this. As hard as it is, I really would have kicked myself.
I could have stayed in Anastasia. I was invited to stay on in the show, and I was like, "No, I think I have to do this. I just feel in my heart I have to do it." And, now, some days I'm like, "oh, my God. This is huge. This is a huge" ... When I was playing Angel, I suppose I didn't appreciate how much Josephine Blake (London's original Anna) was doing in the role, and now I look at this mammoth script and mammoth emotional journey and the vocal demands of it. And, there's dancing, and there's a little skating, in brackets. A little. So, yeah, I just think, "Wow! But, my favourite thing is a challenge."
The Rink runs until 23rd June at the Southwark PlayhousePhoto credit: Darren Bell