Eddie ‘super-duper businessman’ Costello (Joe Dixon) runs a roller diner in a dreary gang-riddled Birmingham, with the help of his daughter Chantel (Lucie Shorthouse) and waitress Jean (Rina Fantania), neither of whom roller skate, and Chantel’s boyfriend/in-house chef PJ (Ricky Oakley). Stinking of grease and broken dreams, and littered with sticky ketchup bottles, the place is a run-down slice of failure. That is, until Marika (Lucy McCormick) breezes through the door, claiming to be a Polish immigrant in search of a job. Naturally, she’s set her sights high on Eddie’s drab cafe, and at the promise of a two-week unpaid trial period, she’s hired.
As the plot thickens, we learn the true sincerity of Marika’s situation and the events that brought her to the Diner. The first half an hour or so is a joy to watch, but as energy dwindles and the quality of songs seems to decline, the story begins to get stranger and stranger, and even takes a more sombre turn. Although McCormick is enchanting and forthcoming as punchy Marika, I’m not sure her being a victim of human trafficking and sexual exploitation makes for a good musical comedy.
Besides this, the play does reflect the ‘little England’ attitude that is prevalent in communities up and down the country today, and when Jean says without a hint of shame that she ‘likes Polish people, in Poland’, it’s the rhetoric most of us may have heard uttered before.
The set design by Anthony Lamble is fabulously dim, and comically falls apart as sparks fly during the opening number. Versatile and familiar, it lends itself to be ran all over and hidden behind by the cast. Costume design also deserves a mention, particularly that of Eddie, in his stained crocs and socks but adorned with cheap looking jewellery, and PJ in his Lonsdale shirt and Air Max trainers. They embody a certain British stereotype that is both comical and instantly recognisable.
Written by Stephen Jackson, his debut play is wholly agreeable, but there seems to be almost too much going on. The plot is sometimes so bizarre that it’s unclear what is true and what isn’t, and the lighting and sound design bring an almost supernatural vibe to the piece which isn’t reflected in the writing. The fourth wall is also well and truly obliterated, which sometimes feels uncomfortable rather than inclusive.
Roller Diner is zany and has witty moments of unconventional humour, but has just as many moments where gags are met with only a murmur from the audience. The beating heart of the show is the brilliant cast, in particular Shorthouse and Fantania, who are both loveable, feisty and charming. With echoes of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, perhaps with a more refined script, Roller Diner could be the cult hit it tries to be.
Roller Diner is playing at Soho Theatre until June 24.
Photo: Helen Maybanks