For many people, especially in America, RENT is not simply a piece of light evening entertainment. It is a cult show that epitomised the struggles and confusions of a generation that tried to claim free love for themselves and consequently got hit by a wave of disease of unimaginable proportions. Loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème and dealing with the AIDS/HIV problem it had a huge impact when it came to Broadway in 1996. RENT’s world is gritty and yet life-affirming in spite of disease. Without being overly sentimental or pretentious, it deals with characters that try to make sense of their relationships and careers in the little time they have got left.
This seems to be a high season for fans of RENT or "Rentheads", as they call themselves: Anthony Rapp (who played Mark Cohen in the original Broadway production) is currently in town doing his one man show Without You at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the current New York Off-Broadway show had its last run only a couple of days ago, and now there is Paul Taylor Mills’ slick interpretation of this modern classic.
What he offers is not original or new but it is highly enjoyable, and Jonathan Larson’s music and story take care of the rest. Mark (Benjamin Stratton), the filmmaker, and his flatmate Roger (Edward Handoll) don’t have enough money to pay their rent and are threatened to be evicted by their former friend and now landlord Benjamin (David Hinton-Gale). There are drugs, sex, guitars and plenty of existential questions to be dealt with. As an artist, how do you prevent yourself from being a sell-out when you can’t pay the bills? Can you find true love when confronted by a numbing disease? And what can offer comfort in a life that seems hopeless?
This version is a bit relentless, and some of the big questions in Larson’s piece don’t get a lot of breathing space to be explored. But in the quieter numbers like "Will I?" we are allowed to sink a bit deeper into the desolation of the characters, and that’s the big strength of the original material. Among all of the outrageous and obscene moments that lend the show its roughness, it is the tenderness and sincerity that make RENT such an unforgettable experience.
The vocal performances of the cast are convincing and strong across the board. One of the stars s Zoe Birkett who, while vocally impressive and with impeccable comedy timing during the number Over The Moon, tries a bit too hard in her characterisation of the over-sexualised performance artist Maureen. It’s probably not the easiest thing to be effortlessly sexy and in with the audience at the same time. Gary Wood plays the feisty drag queen Angel as fierce and touching at the same time and Stephanie Fearon’s Mimi shines especially in quiet numbers like "Without You".
But the one who really stands out is Jamie Birkett, who plays the lesbian lawyer Joanne as a strong no-nonsense power woman and who can speak volumes with merely the lift of an eyebrow.
Andrew Beckett’s costumes and David Shield’s set, an effective scaffolding structure dominating the stage, are both very reminiscent of the original Broadway version. If you have never seen RENT live before this is definitely the show for you. If however you have already seen your "favourite" version of the show all of this might be a bit too polished. And certainly for my taste it was all just a tad too shiny - that applies to some of the musical arrangements as well as the direction both of which seem to loose a bit of their focus towards the end at "What You Own".
But this is just picking holes into what is overall a well-presented and round show with a very strong ensemble and generally believable main characters. Definitely watch out for Maeve Byrne and her excellent solo part in "Seasons of Love".
Proving its enduring popularity, later this year Interval Productions will bring an amateur-licensed version of the show to The Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, and it will be interesting to see how both productions will compare to each other.