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Roller Diner review at Soho Theatre, London – ‘cartoonish energy’

The cast of Roller Diner at Soho Theatre, London. Photo: Helen Maybanks The cast of Roller Diner at Soho Theatre, London. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Stephen Jackson’s Verity Bargate award-winning debut play-with-songs, Roller Diner, resists easy categorisation.

Set in an American-themed greasy spoon in Birmingham that has seen better days, the play has a cartoonish energy that’s initially intriguing, but comes to feel muddled and unfocussed.

Mysterious eastern European Marika clatters in to Eddie’s diner on her white PVC heels looking for a job as a ‘super duper waitress’ and swiftly sets about gussying the place up much to the displeasure Eddie’s daughter Chantal who is worried that Marika will steal her boyfriend PJ.

The characters frequently burst into retro pastiche songs. There is a subplot involving a local gang and a dead dog. Sadly there’s no roller skating.

All too often Steve Marmion’s primary-coloured, bubble gum production feels like it’s striving for a surrealist quality it never quite achieves. Is Marika a “good immigrant” or a “bad immigrant,” or something more malevolent? The play slips and slides tonally as the plot ties itself in knots.

Triple Threat’s Lucy McCormick is typically charismatic as the confident and composed Marika but the exotic eastern European interloper is such a problematic trope even before the character is revealed to be a trafficked former prostitute.

Jackson’s play dances around the issue of immigration and the UK’s knotty relationship with the people who make their home in this country, but some of the comedy feels distinctly uneasy – and not in a good way.

Anthony Lamble’s Formica and neon set is impressive in scale and the cast does its best to invest things with ebullience and humour. Rina Fantina, as mardy, lovelorn waitress Jean, is a delight and Ricky Oakley’s strong-voiced PJ is also great value. But the production’s self-conscious zaniness ends up grating.

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Cartoonish and energetic musical comedy debut that’s well performed but uncomfortably muddled in tone