Saturday, 17 December 2016

REVIEW: RENT at St James Theatre, London

“Inspired by Puccini’s classic opera La bohème, RENT features unforgettable music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson including the much-loved songs Seasons of Love, Take Me or Leave Me and La Vie Bohème.  Winner of four Tony® Awards, six Drama Desk Awards and the hugely prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it ran on Broadway for an astonishing 12 years.”

From the day Rent opened on Broadway, it has been a popular culture sensation. Shining a light on issues like HIV, homelessness and drug addiction, this musical is one of a kind and has made its way to the St James’s Theatre in London to mark its 20th anniversary.

From the moment you set foot into the theatre, you’re immersed in the world of Rent. The moving set was focussed to Mark and Roger's loft apartment with some scaffolding to show Mimi's apartment. As the audience took to their seats, we could see Roger (played by actor/muso Ross Hunter) tuning his guitar, Mark (Billy Cullum) filming and editing various moments and a few homeless people wandering about the stage. Effective, but not invasive as conversation continued in a low hum before the show officially began.

Throughout the evening, the choreography was fantastic! For a show which does not necessarily require heavy dance routines, the interpretation suited the show perfectly. In the opening number "Rent" which involved all the cast, and although the main focus is on Mark and Roger trying to make a fire to keep them warm, the rest of the cast danced around them as both homeless people and drug addicts. The choreography was sharp, isolated and quick, and the idea of addiction was clear.

Another number notable for its staging was "La Vie Boheme". Set in a restaurant, and in a small space, I wasn't sure how this would work. The use of tables played a huge part in this, and (as with the set) the way they tables were moved about the stage was executed very well. I particularly enjoyed when couples were sat at the tables and doing a rhythmic and fast hand routine (think "Pitch Perfect" and "The Cup Song", but with no cup and 12 times as fast!) With lots of sexual references in this song, the cast were not shy in their movements, but the movements were in no way crude. Not one bit of choreography was out
of place. Perfection.

The whole cast were incredible and you were emotionally invested with each character. Billy Cullum as Mark is really the glue of the show, and he is rarely off stage. A fantastic performance, and with the original Mark from Broadway, Anthony Rapp, in the audience, I can only imagine the pressure he would have been under. Cullum kept the show flowing and, for such a placid character, his turning point after "Halloween" was spot on. "La Vie Boheme" was a highlight for me, and he lead this number with great showmanship.

Ross Hunter as Roger is a slow burner, but worth the wait.  Fans of the show know Roger’s year-long struggle to write his greatest song "Your Eyes" and Hunter sings this with a real heart-aching poignancy.

Layton Williams as Angel was simply brilliant. Angel is fierce, playful and funny in Act I, but by Act II has had a dramatic downfall and becomes a tragic heroine. A phenomenal dancer and acrobat, he really showed off his skills in "Today 4 U". He did lose a little stamina and breath control with his vocals about half way through this number, but with the tricks he was having to do (and in heels!) I am not surprised and he is easily forgiven!

Lucie Jones as Maureen was quirky and loveable. With this role famously being played by Idina Menzel, it can be easy to try and copy her original performance, but Lucie Jones was a Maureen in her own right. Her riffs were phenomenal and her comic timing in the monologue
for "Over The Moon" was on point. She even managed to convince the audience to "moo" with her!

The stand-out performance of the night was undoubtedly Ryan O'Gorman as Collins. His deep raspy tones when he sang reverberated beautifully through the theatre and his relationship with Angel was totally believable. He had such a strong stage presence and seeing him break down during "I'll Cover You: Reprise" on stage left me heart broken. His singing was raw and stripped bare and I don't think there was a dry eye in the house.

Other notable performances were Philippa Stefani as Mimi, Shanay Holmes as Joanne, and ensemble members Jenny O'Leary, Christina Modestou and Jordan Laviniere.

Although this show is residing at the St James for the Christmas season, that does not mean this is a Christmas show. Rent gets really dark and brings to the forefront of your mind the reality that not everybody gets that cosy Christmas dream of presents around a big decorated tree with a crackling fire and family to share the day with. It’s not necessarily a “feel-good” show, but it is life affirming and is the perfect way to remind you that there is no day but today.

This show is nothing short of perfection. 

Review by Claire Redbush

Rating: ★★★
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