Rent - the Musical

Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Robert Macintosh and Idill Theatricals Ltd for Rent 20th Anniversary Productions Ltd
New Victoria Theare, Woking

The cast of Rent Credit: Matt Crockett
Philippa Stefani as Mimi and Ross Hunter as Roger Credit: Matt-Crockett

Celebrating its 20th anniversary and still packing in the punters, this show, based on the opera La Bohème, is not a happy story, but a very emotional one, of a bohemian community on New York’s East side struggling to live creative lives despite tremendous odds and all with the shadow of AIDS lurking over them.

On a bitterly cold Christmas Eve in the 1990s, aspiring film director Mark (Joshua Dever) begins by describing the squalor in which he and his flat mate are living, and even this rundown abode is to be lost to them as Benjamin, the landlord, a friend who has promised rent-free accommodation, is now demanding payment.

In an amazingly designed and constructed set, the flat is on a raised platform centre stage surrounded by all the ramshackle buildings, fire escapes, ladders, windows, doors and platforms of the neighbouring run-down apartments, becoming a seething mass of humanity as the occupants emerge and make their presence felt.

Over the course of year, Mark records their lives, their relationships, their arguments, their love and compassion and the changes which take place over this period.

Almost totally sung-through, I was impressed by the clarity of the enunciation with most of the lyrics, something often lost in song, being perfectly understandable, the only exception being "Over the Moon", a rant which was so loud and aggressive that initially the meaning was lost to me. (I have Googled the lyrics since!) Not, though, to the multitude of fans of the show who seemed to know every word and enthusiastically joined in "Mooing" at the end. You had to be there!

With regard to the area, the place is awash with crazed drug addicts, beggars and muggers who all have their part to play in the story and it’s a huge cast involving a lot of doubling-up, but the main nucleus consists of seven close and supportive friends.

Room-mate Roger (Ross Hunter) is a musician, so traumatised by his girlfriend’s suicide that he is not keen to start a new relationship, in spite of exotic dancer Mimi imploring him to "Light my Candle", one of the most beautiful songs in the show sung superbly and emotionally by Phillippa Stefani. Eventually, sadly totally discouraged by lack of musical success, he trades in his beloved guitar to buy a car.

Lucie Jones is Mark’s quirky and fun girlfriend Maureen, leaving him for a truly golden-voiced Jenny O’Leary as Joanna, and a very charismatic Ryan O’Gorman is Tom Collins, street drummer and teacher, philosophically and triumphantly holding up half a sleeve which a mugger had failed to grab along with his coat.

It is the aftermath of this mugging which introduces him to Angel, a kindred spirit and undoubtedly the star of the show. This is Layton Williams as a drag queen who brings in glamour and compassion as well as whoops of joy from an expectant audience. His acrobatic dancing is spellbindingly amazing—and performed in vertiginously-high high heels. He’s grown up a little since his 12-year-old self as the star of Billy Elliot.

Across the board, performances are truly exceptional coping with acting, singing, dancing—there’s a beautifully executed, quirky and tricky "Tango—Maureen" danced by Mark and Maureen, and the action is fast, furious and needing great agility.

It’s rough, raw life on the edge—an emotional blast that leaves you drained, but full of compassion for people who have had to struggle in that way and it’s a brilliant interpretation of their problems and survival instincts which so much rely on others. The full house standing ovation was thoroughly deserved.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor