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Review of Hope Mill Theatre’s RENT Online

One song, before the virus takes hold”, sings Tom Francis’ Roger, hoping there’s a tune he’ll be remembered for before the Grim Reaper comes for him. The virus in question isn’t Covid-19, but so much in Rent, set in 1989 New York City, applies to 2020 nonetheless. There is, for instance, palpable frustration at the government of the United States seemingly causing a large number of deaths by way of benign neglect. I recall musing in the first few weeks in lockdown after the theatres closed that the opening number in this show could well end up being quite apt for 2021 with so many people out of work and little (if any) prospect of employment for the foreseeable future: “How we gonna pay last year’s rent?”

Hope Mill Theatre's RENT OnlineThere’s not a huge amount of set to speak of, with the lighting effects, costumes and dialogue setting up each scene change. Some actors remain when their characters are not in a scene, sat at the edges of the stage, which gives the production the feel of a semi-staged concert at times. The pace of the musical numbers is sometimes a tad brisker than the Broadway cast recording, but it works fine here. Indeed, there’s a freshness and edginess in this production that I’ve not come across in Rent before.

Watching this online (as ‘Lockdown Two’ prevented your reviewer from trekking up to Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre to see it in person), the Umbrella Rooms have an excellent job capturing the show. Evidently, it was designed to be seen in the theatre, and on occasion, the lighting could have been a little brighter in order for online audiences to see what was happening properly, even taking into consideration certain scenes that take place, say, outdoors at night.

That is an ultimately negligible point in an otherwise highly enjoyable evening. Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography is sprightly and energetic, and judging by some of the close-up shots of the actors, is demanding on the cast. It’s also worth mentioning that it adheres to social distancing guidelines, many of which were, in any event, relaxed on account of the twelve-strong cast forming a ‘bubble’ by living in a twelve-bedroom house within easy commuting distance of the theatre.

The end result gives the audience an enlivening experience, and it is also pleasing to report that there are no weak links. The fresh-faced Francis possesses a glorious rock tenor voice, and he demonstrates some serious commitment to his role. Maiya Quansah-Breed’s Mimi had a strong stage presence in ‘Out Tonight’, as did Millie O’Connell’s Maureen in ‘Over The Moon’, who understandably received an audible reaction from the audience having said, “They’ve closed everything […] and replaced it all with lies and rules and virtual life”. Oof.

The narrative, although relatively complex with subplots and various characters falling in and out of love, is easy to follow in this production. Not every aspect of the story has aged well: whilst Angel (Alex Thomas-Smith) and Collins (Dom Hartley-Harris), both excellent in ‘I’ll Cover You’, are far from resigned to their fates, living in the moment, the same can’t exactly be said for the show’s lesbian characters. This, of course, is not the production’s fault, and it doesn’t help, as has been well-documented elsewhere, that the musical’s writer, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly before the show’s first preview, such that whatever rewrites and amendments there might have been were never realised.

Ahmed Hamad’s Benny was an interesting watch. The character is often portrayed as a downright evil property developer and not much else, and while the demands to pay up and looks of contempt are still evident, there were also hints of humanity in his appeals for understanding to his former roommates. And another thing: I have no idea what the budgetary and copyright constraints are, but a cast recording of this bold and inspired production wouldn’t go amiss.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Streaming to the UK ONLY. Playing at advertised times Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). This event is geo-blocked to customers outside of the UK.

This event is not streamed live – it is a recorded live performance from Hope Mill Theatre’s live run. You will be sent a password-protected link to access on the day of your booking.

RENT is a rock musical with music, lyrics, and book by Jonathan Larson and is loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème.

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

RENT was originally produced in New York by New York Theatre Workshop and on Broadway by Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum, Allan S. Gordon and New York Theatre Workshop.

Presented by arrangement with Music Theatre International (Europe) Limited

Creatives:
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
Production Designer: George Reeve
Musical Director: Chris Poon
Casting: Pearson Casting
https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/

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