Rent – Review

Rent: Hope Mill Theatre (Online Stream)

27th November 2020

★★★★

Rent, the multi-award winning rock musical written by the late Jonathon Larson, is a huge hit with fans and newcomers alike. After the year we’re had so many people can relate to the cash strapped characters and even the circumstances feel similar in ways, after all Maureen does state ‘they’ve closed everything real down like barns and troughs and … performing spaces!‘. The Hope Mill Theatre’s newest production of Rent was scheduled for the summer but instead managed to open and play to a live audience for few short days in October before once again the country was plunged into a national lockdown. Luckily the show was recorded for online streaming and is now available to watch from the comfort of your home.

Featuring the iconic hits such as ‘Take Me or Leave Me’, ‘Out Tonight’ and ‘Seasons of Love’ from songwriter and creator Jonathon Larson, Rent tells the story of a group of New Yorkers facing battles with addiction, AIDS, homelessness and poverty. At times heartbreaking, Rent manages to take the audience on an emotional roller coaster from the depths of despair to the peak of joy.

Director, Luke Sheppard, has worked hard to fit a large scale musical into such a small venue and in doing so manages to add further to the chaos of the show whilst still allowing space for quiet, poignant moments. The choice to have the cast surround the stage at all times is an interesting one but on the whole does not add to the production. However there are some clever moments of choreography by Tom Jackson Greaves where the whole cast are used from their seated positions. Rent really is an ensemble piece and given the small stage this allows for the entire cast to be involved. In the larger numbers such as ‘La Vie Boheme’ Contact‘ and ‘Rent‘ this works particularly well. The choreography is innovative and fresh but still has the iconic style that fans of the show will expect to see.

The set and costume design by David Woodhead, along with the lighting by Howard Hudson works brilliantly to emphasise the character’s emotional journey. The use of candles throughout the show is very symbolic, particularly during the ending sequence which is performed very differently to most other versions. The walls surrounding the stage are full of banners, placards and graffiti – perfect for the New York setting and the costumes add to the feel of the show. Whilst the stage may be small it rarely feels cluttered. There are some stand out parts of the production including the use of mic cable to create a boxing ring during ‘Tango Maureen‘ which really highlights the relationship between Mark and Joanne.

The fantastically diverse cast are all extremely talented and, Tom Francis, who is fresh from college, is a future star to watch out for. He manages to show Roger’s vulnerable side, hidden behind his tough exterior, brilliantly and his vocals are perfectly matched for his character. Maiya Quansah-Breed’s take on Mimi adds a funny side to the troubled character. She is passionate, sexy and yet needy and troubled. The chemistry and emotion between the couple is outstanding. Blake Patrick Anderson is excellent as Mark. Narrating the production, Mark often gets overlooked but Blake’s performance ensures that his version of the character stands out. Not only are his vocals great but he fully embodies the character.

Musically, Rent is contemporary with a rock edge and the cast all excel. The vocals are exceptional throughout the show and never feel forced. The harmonies are performed brilliantly and the vocals work well together. Dom Hartley-Harris’ soulful, deep, rich vocals are perfectly suited to ‘I’ll Cover Your Reprise‘ and Jocasta Almgill’s vocal strength and power as the stern lawyer Joanne is excellent.

In this newest production of Rent there are some meaningful director choices, for example from the symbolic use of candles to the focus during the song ‘Will I?‘ being on the troubled Roger. However the choices to limit touch throughout the show feels slightly at odds with the story. This choice may be due to Covid reasons but by the end of the second act most cast members do touch each other therefore offering up the question of why they have avoided it throughout the other scenes which lend themselves to physical touch and where it would add further to the relationship. If the cast are in a ‘bubble’ and it is safe enough to touch once for effect then surely it would have been more natural to include it throughout. Similarly at points it felt like the cast are observing social distancing rules, which they did not need to as the cast were tested regularly for Covid and were isolating together, and at other times they are extremely close. Luckily despite limited physical touch the scenes are still very emotional and due to the incredibly talented cast the characters relationships are plainly evident.

Rent is a show which will never grow old. It has so many strong, fierce characters and meaningful story lines that there truly is something for every audience member. The issues that it raises are still prevalent today almost 25 years after it was written. 2020 has meant that most productions have had to be shelved or even cancelled completely so it is superb that Rent has been able to have a life both live in Manchester and now online for many more to experience. Full of heart and emotion, Rent is a must watch.

Rent – Online! is now available to stream from the 27th November until the 20th December 2020. There are a strictly limited number of tickets per performance so do not miss this opportunity! Tickets are available here: https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/rent-online

Photo Credit: Pamela Faith

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