Until yesterday, if I were to have made a list of all the shows I thought could conceivably be a success when performed in the confines of a pub theatre, RENT would certainly not have been on it. The sheer physicality of the performance, the energy and buzz needed to see you through the long first half, the large cast, the technical constraints regarding the music; how could any of these possibly work?
How wrong I was.
The Tabard Theatre in Chiswick is small, certainly, but as it turned out it is more than large enough to hold an impressive set, a superbly talented set of musicians and an all singing/all dancing cast that takes your breath away. Oh, and an audience, rapturous in their appreciation and applause.
It’s been almost twenty years since RENT, Jonathan Larson’s rock musical based on Puccini’s La Bohème first appeared off-Broadway, but it has lost nothing of its appeal, and its ability to move the audience to both laughter and tears continues unabated. The story of a group of New York Bohemians struggling against poverty, hunger and the (relatively new at the time) plague of HIV and AIDS is as relevant now as it was then, and the themes of friendship, betrayal, love and death are eternal and universal.
Roger, a struggling musician and Mark, an aspiring film-maker are living on the breadline, the threat of eviction hanging over their heads like Damocles’ sword. Their landlord is their former room-mate Benjamin Coffin III, now turned amoral city-slicker fat-cat. Roger’s girlfriend committed suicide on discovering they both had AIDS; his only ambition now is to write one great song before he dies. That is until he meets feisty bad-girl Mimi, also infected and with a serious drug problem, who might just give him the will to go on living. Mark’s girlfriend Maureen has left him for a lawyer called Joanne, and he is attempting to throw himself into his work. Their anarchist friend Tom Collins is saved from muggers by a drag queen called Angel; they are both HIV positive too, but find comfort in their love for each other. Together, the motley crew decide to thwart Benny’s plans to evict the homeless people from the lot next door, but can they put aside their differences and sort out their emotional entanglements long enough for them to succeed in their quest?
Musically and dramatically the show is a rip-roaring success. The set is simple but effective – the empty bottle Christmas tree was a particularly nice touch – and the lighting effectively adds to the gritty, grimy atmosphere. The songs are very quick and very wordy, so the fact that almost every line was audible was an impressive technical achievement in itself.
The choreography and direction, both by Adam Scown, were slick and tight, making the most of the small stage and minimal props. They only slightly clumsy moment came during ‘Contact’, but I honestly don’t know how they could have done it any better. The cast are generally very strong vocally, but not one of them made the mistake of prioritising the singing over the acting; all of the characters had depth and authenticity. Special mention has to go to Jodie Steel, uninhibited, tough and vulnerable all at once as the flamboyant Mimi and to William Whelton as Angel, whose radiant charm made that scene all the harder to bear. His ability to dance on tables whilst wearing a pair of vertiginous heels is also astounding. Charlie Royce made the sometimes fleshless role of narrator Mark rounded and likeable; his ‘Tango Maureen’ with Joanne was a comedy gem. There was a palpable chemistry between the whole cast which helped to draw you into their eccentric, frenetic little world so that you rejoiced with their ups and sympathised with their downs. This togetherness and energy also gave a real punch to the ensemble numbers, such as ‘La Vie Bohème’ and ‘Life Support’.
One of the greatest things about RENT is that there is no black or white, only hundreds of different shades of grey. Good and Bad, Right and Wrong; all are relative and elastic, and no character is ever completely beyond redemption. These subtleties and nuances were brought out beautifully both by the director and by the cast, and the overall feeling at the end is one of exhaustion, exhilaration, and a vague hope that mankind just may turn out ok.
Pindar Theatre’s production of RENT is an almost perfect example of a West End quality show in a pub theatre. I’m not ashamed to say that I laughed aloud, I cried buckets, and I clapped until my hands were sore. A triumph.
Review by Genni Trickett
For further details and tickets visit www.tabardtheatre.co.uk
Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Musical Arrangements Steve Skinner
Music Supervision and Additional Arrangements by Tim Weil
Original Concept/Additional Lyrics Billy Aronson
Dramaturg Lynn Thomson
Presented by arrangement with JOSEF WEINBERGER LIMITED on behalf of Music Theatre International of New York
Friday 9th August 2013