REVIEW: Rent, New Victoria Theatre Woking ✭✭✭✭✭

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The cast of Rent. Photo: Matt Crockett

Rent
New Victoria Theatre Woking (UK Tour)
7 March 2017
5 Stars
UK Tour Details

It's hard to believe that Jonathan Larson's ground-breaking musical Rent has been with us now for 20 years! Sitting in the audience at the New Victoria Theatre in Woking this week, it's amazing to realise that a third of the audience who are lapping up Jonathan's modern take on La Boheme probably weren't even born when this story of friendship and love first took to the stage.

Bruce Guthrie's new staging takes iconic moments from the show's original staging re-inventing them for audiences twenty years on and giving the show a familiar but new look. Anna Fleischle creates an enormous steel frame playground for this band of Bohemians to inhabit. Neon displays, subtle hints at warehouse loft windows and towering structures dominate this production, allowing Guthrie to focus the action with amazing clarity bringing some of the most intimate moments closer to audiences than ever before.

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Philippa Stefani as Mimi and Ross Hunter as Roger in Rent. Photo: Matt Crockett

On the night I attended Joshua Dever took on the role of narrator Mark Cohen. Always the observer, you get the feeling that Mark is a gentle soul who is swept along by how his friends are affected by AIDS and the almost impossible task of living day to day at that time. It's a slow torment that builds within him finally exploding in his duet with Roger in Act Two – What You Own. Dever managed to fuse rock intensity with dramatic intent, no easy task in a show where there are some astoundingly brilliant vocal performances.

As loft-mate and friend Roger – Ross Hunter's vocal for Roger was astonishing. Edgy, powerful and tormented you really believed and had sympathy for Roger. Ryan O'Gorman's Collins offered audiences a strong sensitive portrayal of an enigmatic character. His sexy masculine vocal was one of the highlights of this new production. His pairing with Layton Williams' incredibly energetic Angel worked had most of the audience around me in tears during the second act. Just how Williams keeps up his frenetic take on musical theatre's most iconic drag queen of modern times is quite beyond me.

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Layton Williams as Angel and Ryan O'Gorman as Collins. Photo: Matt Crockett

Philippa Stefani's Mimi was superb as was the coupling of Lucie Jones as Maureen and Jenny O'Leary as Joanne. Maureen is a character that can fall foul of overindulgent timing problems in Over The Moon, but Jones had the audience in the palm of her hand. O'Leary stepping in as understudy on the night showed her chops as a performer to watch out for in future. Take Me Or Leave Me never sounded so good.

This production recently played the intimate The Other Palace, so it was of interest to pay a visit to one of the larger venues on the show's UK tour to see how the production translated for an audience four times larger. I'm pleased to report that the show successfully played the larger auditorium taking the intensity and beauty of the score to over a thousand people.

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Layton Williams as Angel in Rent. Photo: Matt Crockett

Phil Cornwell's small but dynamic band were on fine form and in good hands with Mike Walker's sound design which managed to balance rock dynamics with intimate lyrics, never an easy task.

Jonathan Larson wanted nothing more than to change the face of musical theatre in a way that would better reflect the life of those around him. Twenty years later it is safe to say that he achieved that and has now become part of the musical theatre firmament. His legacy, this incredible re-telling of La Boheme still speaks to audiences of all ages. I can safely say that I have never seen an audience react to a tour the way that they did with Rent.

Viva La Vie Boheme!

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