…RENT on Stage (Theatre Review)

I disliked Roger’s hair, and that’s the worst thing I have to say about this performance. In other words, wow.


Plot

A group of friends are living in New York at the end of the 1990s. Half of the group are suffering from HIV/AIDS. Mark, who isn’t inflected with the virus, a film maker (and what could be called the protagonist/narrator) is trying to make a film about life at this time. His room-mate, Roger, an ex-addict, wants to write a song before his HIV gets worse. Enter Mimi, a drug addict who falls for Roger; Collins and Angel, a new couple who are both infected but adorably in love; Maureen, who is holding a performance in protest of the closing on a building; her new lover Joanne, a lawyer who is misplaced in the group and Benny, who was once their room-mate but is now working to shut down the building next door. The musical runs from Christmas Eve to Christmas Eve – a year, in the life of friends.

Even those of you who aren’t familiar with the plot of RENT, give the trailer for the show a watch (below).

Thoughts

I’m going to start with the set, because that’s the first thing you see. When we (my cousin and I) took our seats, we discussed what we thought the set was. ‘That’s Mark and Roger’s apartment’ and ‘that’s probably Mimi’s’ were some observations. But also, a wondering if the set moved. And that thought was right – the metal scaffolding that bordered the edges of the set were, in fact, on wheels and moved depending on the setting of the scene (and sometimes even during dance numbers.) The scaffolding provided a visually interesting space for the characters to fill every level during entire cast numbers.

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The set and Mark (Middle) during La Vie Boheme.

I am not ashamed to say that in some numbers my mouth was hanging open from the sheet beauty of the choreography (Lee Proud) and direction (Bruce Guthrie). There was always more than one thing to be looking at during big numbers and amusing scenes. For example, during one of the short solos by Joanne, Mark is seen, centre stage, eating a bag of crisps. However, the one dance number that blew me away was the finale of Act One, La Vie Boheme. The entire cast, including the ensemble, were present for this scene. Taking place in the life cafe, the lively, perfectly timed dance number was so full of energy and movement that I feel like I’d need to watch it over and over again to take in everything that was happening: tables being moved, two-person synchronised routines, each person in their own zone, while being perfectly in time with the rest of the cast.

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The Life Cafe, with lyrics to La Vie Boheme. Angel and Collins (background).

And that’s just the happy numbers. Let’s see if I can get through this part without tearing up. For those of you who don’t know RENT, Act Two is full of heart-wrenching moments, including the death of one character and the break down of another. In this performance, Mimi’s rendition of Without You was beautifully juxtaposed with Angel becoming ill and being taken to hospital by Collins. All around the theatre, you can almost hear hundreds of hearts breaking. Tears were streaming down my own face and the faces of so many other around me. When a musical or play or film makes you feel something that strong, it’s because it strikes accord with you, with something you’ve experienced or felt and when Collin’s sang I’ll Cover You (Reprise) I doubt even the most stoic of showgoers would have held it together. Probably my favourite moment.

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Collins, during I’ll Cover You (Reprise).

The cast were simply unbelievable. The way that each character was played was a little unexpected, unlike in either the original or in the movie adaptation. Mark (Billy Cullum) was light and humours, which brought a wow factor to when he was serious or participating in complicated dance numbers. Roger (Ross Hunter) was brooding and emotional, but without an extra air of wanting to make his life better. Collins (Ryan O’Gorman) was cool and calm, thoughtful and wise while also having  heartbreakingly amazing vocals. Joanne (Shanay Holmes) was played as serious and out of place, but also willing to try and fit in where she was a fish out of water.

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Mimi and Roger during Light My Candle.

However, the stand-out performances, for me, came from Maureen, Mimi and Angel. Maureen (Lucie Jones) was played as, instead of a sex-kitten actress, a comic performance artist. The character was a wonderful, she added an element of comedy that was needed to lighten a sometimes very serious musical. Lucie Jones was clearly comfortable with Maureen’s use of her body and turned up in various revealing costumes. Her performance of Over the Moon was really something else, not just because of the vocals, but because it was a little more ‘we have to put up with Maureen’s bizarre performances’ than anything else.

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Joanne and Maureen (right) during Take Me or Leave Me.

Mimi (Philippa Stefani) was played as an addict. Which the character is, but is often not shown as extensively as was here. It was thought provoking. During Another Day, she shook and shivered, while also trying to convince Roger to leave the house, she kept pitch-perfect throughout Out Tonight while hanging upside down form the set but the one that really got me was Goodbye Love. Philippa Stefani sang this breathtaking song while crying. It’s something I’ve never quite experienced in a show before, not a single note was dropped, but she was sobbing, breaking down and crumbling. An amazing performance.

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Mimi during Out Tonight.

Angel (Layton Williams) is pretty much everyone’s favourite character, so it must be pretty daunting to play him, it’s fair to say that Layton Williams totally killed it. Angel was everything. All singing-all dancing, loving, sexy, comic and tear-jerking. He had the most jaw-dropping dance moments and the sweetest scenes with Collins. And DAMN, that guy looks better in a dress than I do.

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Angel (middle) during Today For You.

Lastly, a massive, huge shout out to the ensemble. They were wonderful. They brought the show together and nailed Seasons of Love which was sung by everyone, but the solos were done by members of the chorus, massive applause to the last Seasons of Love soloist who nailed the last note like an absolute queen.

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The cast singing Seasons of Love.

I’ve never seen an audience stand so quickly for a standing ovation. One that was most definitely deserved.

Conclusions

My only conclusion here is that you should go and see this show. You can find tickets here. And if you miss it in London, there are a few places on the tour that aren’t too hard to get to.

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