Greenwich Theatre, London
Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Paul Taylor-Mills
Rent at Greenwich Theatre is an energetic production of the Broadway hit. Inspired by the opera La Boheme of more than a century earlier, the musical is set around a Manhattan tenement block colonised by young bohemians who span all sexualities and with the plague that ravaged Puccini's characters replaced here by the modern nightmare of HIV/Aids.
Mark Stratton plays Benjamin Cohen, an aspiring filmmaker whose camerawork provides the medium by which the show's narrative can be played out. His roommate , musician Roger, played by Edward Handoll is HIV+ and his number One Song Glory , in which he tells of his desire to write a powerful song before he dies is a moving moment. He falls for Mimi, a strong performance from Stephanie Fearon. A junkie, she too is positive and the point when both characters learn that they each carry the virus I Should Tell You, is powerful number to close act one.
The show offers several main characters. Zoe Birkett plays Maureen Johnson, a bisexual performance artist, in a portrayal that drips with provocative sensuality. Her vocal strength matches her physicality, and her on stage presence dominates her scenes. Noteworthy too was Mikel Sylvanus, who as Tom Collins, is befriended by Angel, the one character who succumbs to Aids. Sylvanus’ voice is a beautifully rich baritone and he is an actor to watch for the future. Jamie Birkett, as Joanne, Maureen’s lesbian partner also delivers a performance that is a delight to both observe and listen to. Birkett has previously impressed in ensemble roles in last year’s Ragtime and The Hired Man and it is particularly pleasing to see her confident portrayal of such a significant character. As Steve, Richie Gooding’s delivery of Will I?, a brutally honest description of a man being forced to confront his mortality at a far too early age also touched a chord of raw tenderness and Thomas Lloyd as the dealer peddling death through drugs set a convincing tone of evil sleaze with each appearance.
Rent’s story weaves vivacity with tragedy and whilst this production certainly has some stunning performances from it's impressively sized troupe of 28, as a whole it fails to reach the heights of passion or the chasms of poignant loss that are within its grasp. Paul Taylor-Mills’ direction lacks a degree of depth and maturity that it is not unreasonable to expect. When Angel dies, his falling into his friends’ open arms could have been conceived by a sixth form drama class, rather than the seasoned eye of an accomplished professional. The sound design was also poor. Sat in prime centre stalls seats, it was frustrating that too many voices were inaudible over the music, particularly in the ensemble numbers and this is a matter for urgent attention.
This popular show remains a production that deserves to be seen. On press night it was well received, the theatre was full and at least half the audience rose to a standing ovation, suggesting that its return to a London stage has been long overdue. And of course Rent's signature tune Seasons of Love remains one of the most beautiful songs of modern musical theatre.
Runs until September 16