St James Theatre (UK Tour)
13 December 2016
Twenty years ago, Jonathan Larson created a show which grabs you by the gut and Bruce Guthrie’s revival certainly doesn’t loosen its grip. As I write this, I am envious of those who are yet to see this brilliant 20th-anniversary production which offers unparalleled, penetrating rawness, performed by a modest cast who surrender their souls to the book, score and to the broken New York artists whose stories they tell.
Giacomo Puccini’s work is no stranger to adaptation, and it was in his ‘La Boheme’ that Jonathan Larson found his inspiration for ‘Rent:’ a rock musical set in ‘90’s Manhattan, against a backdrop of poverty, drug addiction, disease and Bohemianism. Ross Hunter offers a dark and disturbed Roger Davis, a musician and HIV-positive, who vows to make one great song before he dies. Mimi (Philippa Stefani), Roger’s love interest, is a dancer who also has HIV, and is addicted to drugs. Mark is Roger’s roommate, aspiring film maker and the narrator of the piece, played engagingly by Billy Cullum; there is performing artist and Mark’s ex-girlfriend, Maureen (Lucie Jones), who left him for Joanne (Shanay Holmes) – a lawyer. Then, there is Angel (Layton Williams), a drag queen and an aids victim, who falls in love with Tom Collins (Ryan O’Gorman) who is also suffering from the same disease.
‘Rent’ is an impressive routine of bold, vocal gymnastics, especially from Jones and Holmes in ‘Take me or Leave me’, and Ross Hunter who could give Bon Jovi a run for his money. However, Layton Williams as Angel is the definition of perfect casting, and it is easy to envision him slipping on a pair of Kinky Boots. The chemistry between Williams and the totally endearing Ryan O’Gorman as Tom Collins is touchingly genuine, their duet ‘I’ll Cover You’ one of my favourite moments. Praise must be given to Philippa Stefani, especially for the latter half of the show, as she yields to Mimi and becomes overwhelmingly vulnerable – a truly broken soul. Stefani’s performance in ‘Goodbye, Love’ is sincere and haunting, and took the very breath from me, leaving the vein in my temple throbbing as I tried, unsuccessfully, not to sob along with her. I was also particularly drawn to the extremely versatile Jenny O’Leary who performed an applaudable solo in ‘Seasons of Love’ and also appeared as the witty ‘Mom’ and hardened coat vendor.
Lee Proud’s choreography is aggressive and filled with avidity, from the fiery title number and ‘Tango Maureen’ to Angel’s playful ‘Today 4 U’ (which Layton Williams executes with sass and graceful ease in platform heels, better than I could stand still in flats). The score is just as intoxicating, the lyrics just as chilling as the first time you hear them: ‘I'm used to relying on intellect,’ they sing in ‘Life Support’, ‘But I try to open up to what I don't know, because reason says, I should have died three years ago’ – even my bones prickled with goosebumps. ‘Will I?’ has always been one of the most touching numbers in the score for me – a cannon of character soliloquies exposing personal struggles with disease and living in such harsh conditions, also commenting on the subject of mental health, and how we can be rendered so vulnerable from the constant noise in our minds and the never-ending circle of ‘what if’s.’
The journey for the audience, let alone for the characters, is somewhat of an emotional roller-coaster as, one moment, we are cheering as Maureen performs her energetic protest and celebrating ‘La Vie Boheme’, and then the theatre echoes with the sound of heartbreak as Collins cradles a dying Angel in his arms and Mimi succumbs to disease. But, it is a journey I would take again and again. ‘Rent’ is gritty, charged with desperation and fight, but above all – it is completely sobering. We are reminded of how Jonathan Larson, a healthy young man teetering on the edge of success, suffered an aortic aneurysm and died the night before the first public performance of his show. Thus, it is ever more fitting that his ‘Rent’ encourages us to live in the now and sing out: ‘No day but today.’
‘Rent’ plays at St James theatre until 28th January 2017, before continuing its UK tour until June.