Jonathon Larson
Robert Mackintosh and Idill Theatricals Ltd
Theatr Clwyd

Philippa Stefani as Mimi Credit: Brian Roberts

This new production is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Jonathon Larson’s ground-breaking musical Rent.

Set in the East Village of New York City and based on the Puccini opera La Bohème, the story centres on a group of hard-up artists trying to eke out a living in the shadow of the HIV.

The dual meaning of the title covers the main themes of the show: the lack of money to pay for their very basic accommodation and the fact that Larson believed that society was literally rent, torn, by the divide between those with money and those without. It was also divided between those who were suffering the ravages of HIV in the gay community and through the sharing of needles; both of which feature in the storyline. This anniversary tour is given added poignancy by the fact that Larson died the night before the production’s Off-Broadway première.

This new production benefits from a suitably strong cast who bring a renewed vitality and sensitivity to the characters and the challenges they face. There are a host of strong performances as the travails of life for the young artists in Alphabet City unfold.

The story revolves around flatmates film-maker Mark (Billy Cullum) and HIV-positive musician Roger (Ross Hunter) who is striving to write one great song before he dies. The majority of the characters are living with being HIV-positive and their attitude to life echoes the belief of the show's creator, Jonathon Larson, that you should measure your life in the love you receive and not in the years you have been alive.

The desperation of the lifestyle they have chosen, or been forced to adopt, is starkly illustrated by the scenes being set against festivals: opening with Christmas and moving through New Year, Valentine’s Day and Hallowe’en before ending at Christmas the next year. Despite the isolation from wider society, the friends revel in their community and some superb choreography and upbeat songs show a spirit of optimism in bleak circumstances.

Also moving is the number ‘Voicemail’ when concerned parents' calls go unanswered, but it is another superb moment of the performance, combining some great tunes with sadness and friendship.

Layton Williams turns in a superb performance as the ill-starred Angel, including one dance routine that left some members of the audience waiting for a slow-motion replay, and Philippa Stefani is outstanding as dancer Mimi.

Rent is on tour after its residency at Theatr Clwyd and is a must-see experience. It is a lightning bolt of energy and hope from the depths of despair.

Reviewer: Dave Jennings

Are you sure?