Roller Diner continues at the Soho Theatre, London until 24 June.
Star rating: two stars ★ ★ ✩ ✩ ✩
The promise of a new, award-winning musical at the Soho Theatre featuring award-winning playwright and composer Stephen Jackson, Brexit, roller skates, and a critically acclaimed cast is enough to make any theatre lover excited. Regrettably, this production misses the mark with such baffling regularity that its potential is completely undermined.
The tale follows the inhabitants of a crumbling Birmingham roller diner. Eddie (Joe Dixon), the proprietor, who has let himself, and his diner, go; Chantal (Lucie Shorthouse), his gobby daughter; PJ (Ricky Oakley), terrible chef and loving fiancée to Chantal; and Jean (Rina Fatania), the long-serving waitress, in love with Eddie herself.
They’re all just about getting by until mysterious ‘super-duper-waitress’ Marika (played with utter commitment and professionalism by Lucy McCormick) appears from places afar and turns their lives upside down.
For a production clearly intending to highlight the tensions in full-swing Brexit Britain, there is a baffling amount actually being perpetrated by the book.
So much of the humour relies on the assumptions surrounding immigrant sex workers, and far from demonstrating the ignorance behind such assumptions, the jokes themselves often seem to be what’s relied on.
Steve Marmion’s staging does little to redeem the text, and the result lies too far away from either end of the spectrum.
The irony of Jackson’s intent is not lost. The overblown and wacky nature of character and delivery is no accident. It would be nice to believe the lazy stereotypes across the board might be purposefully highlighting a reflection of our own potential for labelling, but skepticism creeps in here.
The problem with ‘so bad it’s good’ is that unless you can offer redemption elsewhere, it wears thin pretty quickly. An exploration of racial tensions during the Brexit negotiations, and the concept of exploring that through slapstick, farce and comedy is a great one, but one that requires just as much clarity of expression if not more – and this show feels far too muddy in its message.
Add to this the fact that the devices it employs within that format aren’t handled properly. The farce isn’t complex enough to be effective. The gags are cheap, and predictable. Jackson’s music offers no hook, little complexity, and no true argument for its existence besides contributing to the kitschy tone.
Some refuge can be found in the comic stylings of Oakley’s PJ, and in the comic timing of Fatania’s Jean, despite the often inappropriate and outdated assumptions of humour regarding age and body type.
Overall, a bizarrely disappointing couple of hours, which stretch a thin and often alarming plot over far more time than is necessary, not to mention the promise of roller skating unfulfilled!