Wednesday, 8 March 2017

REVIEW: RENT at the New Victoria Theatre in Woking

Fresh from its sold out run at the St James Theatre, London, RENT by Jonathan Larson celebrates its 20th groundbreaking year with this UK tour. The cast who brought this show to life in London have all joined this fabulous tour to spread the life-affirming message of Larson’s greatest work.

“This exhilarating, landmark musical tells the thrilling story of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive in New York City's East Village in the thriving days of Bohemian excess.Inspired by Puccini’s classic opera La bohème, RENT features unforgettable music and 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.”

Above all else, this production is an emotional investment. From cast, crew and audience alike, there is an astonishing connection between each person and the show. Rent is a show people return to time and time again, so it was unsurprising to find the audience absolutely packed into the New Victoria Theatre. Huge groups of teens tittered with excitement waiting for the show to begin proving that though this show is now celebrating its 20th year, there are new young people discovering it every day. 

With around 8 principals and an ensemble of the same size, this production shows the beauty of a small cast and how bigger is not always better. It felt intimate and allowed the audience to really connect with all the goings on onstage.

Top billing for this show goes to understudy Joshua Dever as filmmaker Mark and Ross Hunter as his roommate musician Roger. The pair make a great partnership and their voices blended well (if a little nasally as times). Where original Broadway cast member Anthony Rapp (as Mark) added a wonderful nerdiness and sarcasm to his role, Dever’s portrayal was a little soft making him more of a supporting role than a lead. Hunter takes some warming to, however
shows a tenderness and vulnerability in Act II which hugely boosted his likability. 

Ryan O’Gorman develops the role of Collins to perfection as the evening progresses. His sensational vocals in “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” left barely a dry eye to be seen – it was deeply emotional, soulful and poignant. I wept like a baby. As his other half, Angel, is Layton Williams. Reknowned for his sensational dancing, Williams does not disappoint in this show. “Today 4 U” featured split-kicks, acrobatics, pirouettes and so much more – all of which were done in platform heeled boots! He was a wonderful Angel, bringing a great confidence to the role and then a beautiful innocence in the stripped-bare Angel we see in Act II.

As Maureen, (the protesting, mooing lesbian) is Lucie Jones, who shall henceforth be known as “the scene stealer”. If she was on stage, my eyes were on her. She was so captivating and quite frankly, bloody hysterical as Maureen – I just loved every minute of her performance. Her stiff-upper-lipped partner was played at this performance by understudy Jenny O’Leary who knocked the role of “Joanne” out of the park. What a voice! The pair together were superb, with their iconic duet – Take Me or Leave Me – receiving deafeningly loud (and well deserved) applause.

My only reservation in gushing praise for the principals is for Philippa Stefani as Mimi. She sang well at times but her acting choices were a little strange. She
developed a tick when Mimi is supposedly high whereby she excessively wipes her nostrils with her thumb, rubs her teeth and scratches her inner forearm and elbow crease. She repeated these actions so many times, it was distracting and sadly, not believable. In Act II, she cried so much she couldn’t sing. It was heart-wrenching to see her cry like that and the acting was beautiful but it did detract from the music as she couldn’t get half the notes out through her emotional sobbing. 

At final blackout, the entire audience leapt to their feet in a standing ovation unlike any other I've ever seen for a touring show. They were wiping tears from their eyes whilst whooping and hollering at the phenomenal cast of performers taking their deserved bows. As my friend and I left the theatre, she turned to me and holding her hand over her heart said “Wow, it really gets you right there, doesn’t it?” – and that’s exactly why this show is so wonderful. It’s topics are dark and yet somehow it finds humour, hope and heart all at once. 

A creative masterpiece, as relevant now as it ever was. A must-see for all generations.

Review by Harriet Langdown 

Rating: ★★★★

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