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Rent is a show about love and friendship – Review

Lucie Jones as Maureen in RENT. Credit Matt Crockett
Lucie Jones as Maureen in RENT. Credit Matt Crockett

In the early 90s, two creative projects about a group of friends living in New York were going through difficult gestation periods. One resulted in the television series “Friends”; the other in the award-winning musical Rent. Whilst the strongest drug in the former was endless cups of coffee, the latter featured lots of drugs including heroin and AZT as several the characters in Rent are suffering from HIV/AIDS. But deep down they’ve got a lot in common with interconnected, fluid relationships that are constantly changing between the friends and underscoring it all are real, resilient friendships.

The other thing they have in common is they’re both enduring and have captured the imagination of more than the generation that they were aimed at. Friends ran for ten years and is still being shown all over the world in re-runs and this new production of Rent celebrates the musical’s 20th anniversary.

Back around 1992, composer/lyricist Jonathan Larson wanted to transform musical theatre and write an identifiable rock and roll musical that featured contemporary life as he knew it. He and playwright Billy Aronson came up with an idea of basing a rock musical on Puccini’s opera La Boheme but substituting the struggling Bohemian’s of 19th century Paris for the creative people he knew who were finding it hard to survive on the lower east side of New York City. He also realised that he could substitute the shadow of tuberculosis that permeates the opera for HIV/AIDS and a rock musical was born.

Rent tells the story of wannabe filmmaker Mark Cohen (played by Billy Cullum) and room-mate, struggling musician/songwriter Roger Davis (Ross Hunter). They’re squatting without regular power or heat in a dilapidated building owned by Benjamin Coffin III (Javar La’Trail Parker), an old friend who’s married well and has become a property magnate. At the start of the musical, they’re joined by another friend, Tom Collins (Ryan O’Gorman) who’s been beaten up and robbed by a street gang because he’s gay. Mark is going through a tough time as his girlfriend Maureen (Lucie Jones) has left him not for another man but for Joanne (Shanay Holmes). Roger has been trying to write a song for months and is failing miserably. Along the journey, they’re soon joined by Angel (Harrison Clark), a drag queen who helps Tom after his beating and the two soon become a couple.

Then echoing La Boheme, Mimi (Philippa Stefani) who lives in the apartment above Roger’s, knocks on his door asking for a light for her candle. In the opera, Mimi wants the light so she can see her way around – whilst the Mimi in Rent almost certainly wants it so she can dissolve her drugs before shooting up. A relationship soon forms between the two but it turns out to be a turbulent one as we follow the story over the next twelve months or so before it comes to its inevitable conclusion.

Rent is undoubtedly one of the greatest musicals of the last thirty years or so with more memorable songs than any musical written during that period. Larson who had been mentored by Stephen Sondheim would have assumed the mantle of his mentor were it not for the fact that after struggling to get the musical produced, died unexpectedly on the morning of the show’s first preview on January 25th 1996 – a sad loss not only to his family and friends but to the world of musical theatre.

This 20th-anniversary production of the musical does Larson proud. Bruce Guthrie directs with a deft touch keeping it all together. Anna Fleischle’s set is a superb rendering of a grim New York squat with its metallic, industrial, scaffolding feel and all the other technical aspects of the show are spot-on especially Lee Proud’s choreography which is energetic and modern and fits in perfectly with the overall feel of the production.

But as in all successful shows, it’s all down to the casting and in this production, they’ve got it totally right. Although there are the aforementioned main characters, you get the feeling this is a real company of performers and it would be unfair to pick out anyone from the cast to spotlight as they all work so wonderfully together. They all sing, dance and act wonderfully with some of the ensemble playing four or more characters and are a joy to behold – their energy lights up the theatre and has the audience whooping with delight.

Ultimately Rent is a show about love and friendship that is splendidly served by this excellent production – go see it whilst you can.

4 stars

Review by Alan Fitter

This exhilarating, landmark musical tells the thrilling story of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive in New York City’s East Village in the thriving days of Bohemian excess.

Inspired by Puccini’s classic opera La bohème, RENT features unforgettable music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson including the much-loved songs Seasons of Love, Take Me or Leave Me and La Vie Bohème. Winner of four Tony® Awards, six Drama Desk Awards and the hugely prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it ran on Broadway for an astonishing 12 years. Featuring a brilliant cast that includes Harrison Clark* (Hairspray, Wicked, We Will Rock You) and Lucie Jones (X Factor, Legally Blonde The Musical, Les Miserables), this is a rare chance to experience the searing emotion and breath-taking thrills of one of the all-time great musicals – book now to avoid disappointment!

Production Trailer | Rent | 20th Anniversary UK Tour

Running time: 2 hours 30 mins (approx) including 20-minute interval
*Layton Williams will no longer be performing in RENT at The Churchill Theatre while he recovers from an injury. The role of Angel will be played by Harrison Clark. Read our interview with Layton Williams.

6-11 February 2017
Churchill Theatre
High Street
Kent BR1 1HA
Box Office: 020 3285 6000
Website: www.churchilltheatre.co.uk

14-18 February 2017
Festival Theatre
13 / 29 Nicolson Street 
Edinburgh, EH8 9FT
Box Office: 0131 529 6000
Website: www.edtheatres.com

28 February – 4 March 2017
Liverpool Empire Theatre
Lime St
Liverpool L1 1JE
Box Office: 0844 871 3017
Website: www.londontheatre1.com/theatres/liverpool-empire-theatre/

7-11 March 2017
New Victoria Theatre
The Ambassadors
Peacocks Centre
Surrey GU21 6GQ
Box Office: 0844 871 7645
Website: www.londontheatre1.com/theatres/new-victoria-theatre/

28 March to 1 April 2017
Rutland Street
Leicester LE1 1SB
Box Office: 0116 242 3595
Website: www.curveonline.co.uk

3-8 April 2017
Wales Millennium Centre
Bute Pl
Cardiff Bay
Cardiff CF10 5AL
Box Office: 029 2063 6464
Website: www.wmc.org.uk

11-15 April 2017
Cheltenham Everyman Theatre
Regent Street
Cheltenham GL50 1HQ
Box Office: 01242 572573
Website: www.everymantheatre.org.uk

18-22 April 2017
York Theatre Royal
St. Leonard’s Place
York YO1 7HD
Box Office: 01483 440000
Website: www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

1-6 May 2017
Poole’s Centre For The Arts
21 Kingland Road
Dorset BH15 1UG
Box Office: 01202 280000
Website: www.lighthousepoole.co.uk

9-13 May 2017
Belgrade Theatre
Belgrade Square,
Coventry CV1 1GS
Box Office: 024 7655 3055
Website: www.belgrade.co.uk

16-20 May 2017
Nottingham Playhouse
Wellington Circus
Nottingham, NG1 5AF
Box Office: 0115 941 9419
Website: www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk

23-27 May 2017
Assembly Hall Theatre
Crescent Road
Tunbridge Wells
Kent TN1 2LU
Box Office: 01892 530613
Website: www.assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk


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