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RENT at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester | Review

Forty-six musical numbers form part of Rent (or at least, this production of it). Six of these, however, are voicemails (quite literally) and there are a couple of reprises. Even so, the storyline progresses at a steady but unrelenting pace, as Mark Cohen (a hugely likeable Luke Bayer) announces the changing of the seasons. Although the show was first workshopped in 1993, it remains remarkably relevant today. I doubt Jonathan Larson (1960-1996) could have foreseen the Covid-19 pandemic, but when there are lyrics such as “Find the one song, before the virus takes hold” and an observation from Maureen Johnson (Millie O’Connell) that “everything” has been closed down, including “performance spaces”, the show is undoubtedly topical, although set in the midst of the Aids crisis.

Tom Francis - Roger in Hope Mill Theatre's RENT - Photography by Dujonna Gift-Simms.
Tom Francis – Roger in Hope Mill Theatre’s RENT – Photography by Dujonna Gift-Simms.

And there’s more: while there are many actors who can relate to some of the struggles faced by the show’s characters, there is a stronger sense of community that results from people coming together in the midst of adversity. As ever, the ending effectively forces through a happy ending of sorts with a comeback that doesn’t quite fit with the tragic losses sustained due to HIV/AIDS in the Eighties and Nineties. If the musical needs tightening in places that will largely if not entirely be because Larson died suddenly, leaving – as the production’s programme puts it – “the musical unfinished and raw”.

This production is very, very, very engaging. On multiple occasions during the performance I attended there were audible sobs from fellow theatregoers (in a loud rock musical, no less), and while some of these outpourings of emotion could be put down to a first experience of a live theatre show post-lockdown, a lot of it is down to the production’s poignancy and ability to connect with its audiences.

The choreography (Tom Jackson Greaves) sparkles with the right kind of energy for the relatively small Hope Mill Theatre stage – beautiful and not overdone. Tom Francis is phenomenal as Roger Davis, the singer-songwriter in a state of depression. The majority of the cast, when not in a scene, sit on chairs spread out on three sides of the perimeter of the stage: Francis is one of the few (if not the only one) who never breaks character even when in the background. Mind you, it’s also good to see actors smiling, acknowledging and appreciating their colleagues’ talents on stage – they are evidently having a blast.

Perhaps inadvertently, the show sometimes has the feel of a rock concert, especially with the copious amounts of perspiration emanating from Francis’ face. Could the cast be given lighter costumes? Well, in a word, no: when “Christmas bells are ringing” and “it’s beginning to snow”, people who can’t afford to turn the heating on are not going to be wearing T-shirts and shorts. Certainly not in New York City.

Tom Collins (Dom Hartley-Harris) and Angel Schunard (Alex Thomas-Smith) complement each other well in various ways, with ‘I’ll Cover You’ a particular highlight for me. Hartley-Harris’ deep, velvet tones fused perfectly with Thomas-Smith’s higher tenor voice, and it was an extraordinary experience to see and listen to. A couple of other duets were also high points in the show – Joanne Jefferson (Jocasta Almgill) and O’Connell’s Maureen knock ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ into the park, while Mark and Roger’s ‘What You Own’ was an utter delight.

I previously called for a cast recording of Hope Mill Theatre’s 2020 online production of the show, and while there are budgetary and contractual constraints that may prevent it from happening, I call for one again anyway. There’s nothing quite like seeing a committed cast giving it their all, both individually and collectively, and were it not for financial and geographical inconvenience, it’s a production I’d see again next week. It’s perfectly cast, with no weak links to report, and while some cast members already have other future commitments, it’s a production that deserves a London transfer or a UK tour, or even both. A season of love is just the tonic in these still challenging times.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

RENT, directed by Luke Sheppard (‘& Juliet’), is a rock musical with music, lyrics, and book by Jonathan Larson, loosely based on Puccini’s opera ‘La Bohème’. It tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists living, loving and working in Manhattan’s East Village, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.

Creative Team:
Directed by Luke Sheppard
Choreographer: Tom Jackson Greaves
Musical Supervisor: Katy Richardson
Set & Costume Designer: David Woodhead
Lighting Designer: Howard Hudson
Sound Designer: Paul Gatehouse
Projection Designer: George Reeve
Musical Director: Chris Poon
Assistant Director: Priya Patel Appleby
Casting: Pearson Casting

Hope Mill Theatre
113 Pollard Street
Manchester M4 7JA
6 August – 19 September, 2021


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