28th March 2017
I’ve been a fan of RENT for a long time. For myself and, I imagine, many others, it’s a sort of ‘rites of passage’ show, introducing the teenage me/us to a world of more grown up, and serious musical theatre. I’ve practically worn out my DVD of the final Broadway performance. So it was thrilling to finally see a fully mounted professional production here in the UK in the shape of Bruce Guthrie’s tour, marking the 20th Anniversary of the musical’s premier, and the untimely death of writer Jonathan Larson, just one day before the first performance. Some may express concern over the impact Larson’s death had on the legacy of RENT; do people sentimentalise it? is it an example of posthumous acclaim that may have been more muted had he lived? – My answer to this is ‘no way!’, RENT has proved so popular because of the precocious, yet enduring way it promotes racial and sexual diversity (something which is, shamefully, yet to be equalled in 21st Century theatre), and its themes regarding difference, acceptance and creation. But most of all, in a world where ‘living in America at the end of the millennium, you’re what you own’, Larson instead highlights the vitality of Life and the gift that is Love.
Loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème, RENT essentially charts a year in the life of a group of friends living in New York’s Bohemian Alphabet City as they struggle with love, art, poverty, drug addiction, and disease – all captured on camera by filmmaker, Mark (Billy Cullum). While catchy songs such as ‘La Vie Boheme’, ‘Seasons Of Love’ and ‘Take Me Or Leave Me’ (which, incidentally, I would absolutely savage if RENT Karaoke was a thing…) are the big crowd pleasers, for me it’s the more understated songs that resonate. The frankness of ‘Life Support’ – ‘Reason says I should have died three years ago’ – and the introspective ‘Will I’ – ‘Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care?’ – expresses all the mental and physical anguish of living with HIV/AIDS.
Similarly, ‘On The Street’ brings to light the harshness of homelessness (concentrated further by the poignant contrast with the Christmas setting, the pinnacle of familial intimacy) – ‘No room at the Holiday Inn, oh no. And it’s beginning to snow’. Jenny O’Leary in particular makes an impact as a homeless woman, draped in a tattered American flag, who berates Mark, ‘My life’s not for you to make a name for yourself on!’, a line which perfectly summarises the tension between liberal art and liberal guilt – pertinent still in this age of debating the ethics of so-called ‘poverty porn’. Larson doesn’t create a one-dimensional, rose tinted portrayal of liberal creatives, he points out the contradictions and downfalls of ‘living for your art’, as the woman says, ‘This lot is full of motherfucking artists… You gotta dollar?... I thought not’. Just as liberal guilt gets a going over, Mark’s sensitive lament, ‘Halloween’, illuminates the problem for many people living during the AIDS epidemic, that of survivors guilt – ‘Why am I the witness?’. It is a credit to Larson’s skill that these lyrics (sorry for the abundance of quotes, but they really speak for themselves) perfectly capture a certain time and place, yet have completely stood the test of time. And coupled with the rocking anthems of the big set pieces, he really did create a musical masterpiece.
Changes for this production include a greater emphasis on choreography. Lee Proud enlivens ‘Tango: Maureen’ with bold staccato moves, and ‘On The Street’ features what I can only term ‘trolleyography’ (my apologies). I also ‘enjoyed’ (that is entirely the wrong word) the greater emphasis on the physical manifestation of Angel’s (Layton Williams) suffering. It’s crushing to see one so previously optimistic now frail and legion-spotted, Williams seemed to actually shrink as he’s carried, child-like by the steadfast Collins (Ryan O’Gorman) to his hospital bed. The medical, feverish spin on ‘Contact’ gives the scene an extra dimension as the pulsations of Angel’s waning heartbeat echo the beats of the rave music. A touching addition occurs when Collins gives his coat to Mimi (Philippa Stefani) during the final, the same coat stolen from him at the beginning and later recovered by Angel. It’s a lovely way to bring the narrative full circle – the coat being a motif of care, love and solidarity throughout.
Amongst the stellar cast, Williams, O’Gorman and Stefani truly excel. Williams is a very sweet yet feline Angel, and his backflips (in five inch heels, no less!) rightly issue a rapturous response, while O’Gorman is a mature and grounded Collins, his voice rich and deeply emotive. Stefani is utterly refreshing as the tragic, addicted Mimi, her shivers are palpable, her vulnerability blatant as she sways precariously during ‘Light My Candle’. While I am pretty much guaranteed to weep during Collins’ reprise of ‘I’ll Cover You’, in this instance Stefani elicited yet more tears from my normally bone-dry eyes during her tender renditions of ‘Without You’ and ‘Goodbye Love’. The cracking of her voice was almost too much for my already bruised heart to bear. I must also mention Lucie Jones in what seems like a breakout role (a far cry from Elle Woods and the naïve Cosette), her Maureen is brilliantly eccentric and insolent; she is infuriating and endearing all at once – a difficult task to achieve! To top off an altogether excellent production, Anna Fleischel is fast becoming one of my favourite set designers. More mobile than the Broadway original, the huge industrial framework spins about and evolves into bridges, staircases and tiny studio apartments.
Guthrie’s production is everything I want from RENT and more, he stays faithful to the original production which has seared its way into many a heart and mind, while inserting just enough twists to ensure the musical remains fresh. It’s a crying shame that Larson isn’t around to see the profound influence his work has had over the last 20 years, but the world of musical theatre will remain ever grateful for his progressive artistic insight and undeniable talent.
RENT plays at Curve, Leicester until 1st April. For all further tour dates please visit http://www.rentonstage.co.uk/tickets
Layton Williams (front centre) as Angel in RENT. Credit: Matt Crockett.