REVIEW: Rent, Greenwich Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Rent Greenwich Theatre
(L-R) Benjamin Stratton as Mark & Edward Handoll as Roger. Photo Claire Bilyard.

Greenwich Theatre
4 Stars
8 September 2012

Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical Rent premiered on Broadway in 1996 and ran for over 5000 performances, winning the Tony for Best Musical. The original London production won three Olivier awards. Director Paul Taylor-Mills has created a new London production to rival the hype. And he has succeeded.

Based on Puccini’s La Bohème, Larson’s musical focuses on a group of impoverished young artists living under the shadow of HIV/AIDS. The themes of the show are universal; love, loss, longing. It is, however, by no means perfectly formed; it can feel cumbersome and disjointed. Nonetheless, it is a powerful and moving work.

Taylor-Mills’ production smooths out the rough edges of the material so one forgets they were ever there. Without reinventing the wheel, Taylor-Mills returns to the show’s Broadway roots. David Shields’ grittily fractured design is perfectly complemented by Stuart Pardoe’s seductive lighting design. Andrew Beckett’s costumes echo the originals but with some lovely touches, particularly in the case of Angel, whose flamboyance is tempered by poverty.

Casting was generally spot on. Stephanie Fearon as Mimi had a beautiful depth to her voice, and in Out Tonight exposed the complexity of her characterisation, portraying lust and pain, side by side. Zoe Birkett gave an astounding performance as Maureen; her first entrance in Over The Moon is a highlight – perfectly self-indulgent and deeply humorous. Her incredible voice was matched by her girlfriend, power-dressing Jamie Birkett as Joanne. They found a fiery sexual tension in their duet, Take Me Or Leave Me. Of the men, Gary Wood as Angel gave an invariably touching performance while Benjamin Stratton’s boyish, pigeon-toed portrayal of Mark made the part his own.

The production’s greatest strength was the dynamic ensemble. Maeve Byrne astonished in Seasons of Love. Bravely differing from the original, Byrne began the number as a soloist, and slowly the ensemble gathered around her, thereby making the song celebratory rather than lamenting. Other noteworthy performances came from Inez Mackenzie, Jamie Jukes, Michael Cortez and Richie Gooding.

Musical Directors Huw Evans and Tom Turner, unafraid to play about with the material, give the familiar songs a sharp, modern edge. Taylor-Mills’ precise direction creates a sense of flow in numbers such as La Vie Boheme, where Richard Jones’ rhythmic choreography is particularly notable.

In this production, the creative team and cast have clarified Jonathan Larson’s message. By returning to the Broadway roots, recreating the ambience of the bohemian Alphabet City of the Nineties, and focussing on the narrative drive of the show, Rent becomes relevant. This is an admirable revival of a modern classic.

REVIEW: Edward Theakston
Runs until 16th September
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