Friday, 27 November 2020

REVIEW: RENT at the Hope Mill Theatre (Online)

Loosely based on Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème, RENT is a rock musical which tells the story of a group of young struggling artists in 80s New York during the time of the HIV/Aids crisis. 

RENT premiered on Broadway in 1996 and has since gone on to become a staple musical in the theatre world; having international productions and tours throughout the past 2 decades. This musical about hope, community and love is beloved by all and during a time of global uncertainty from COVID19, seeing this production was like an old candle had been lit again. 

With the most recent lockdown in the UK forcing Hope Mill to cut short the run of the show, they luckily were able to record the show before they had to close their doors, allowing their audiences a chance still to see this glorious production. With a link and a password, we could see “The magic of RENT, from the comfort of your own home…” and it did not disappoint. 

I was initially worried about watching a pre-recorded performance, as I thought that it could translate as a video of a school production. However, I was happily surprised as there were multiple camera angles which had been edited together to really help capture individual moments of the characters, along with the big picture moments that you would get from a live experience; to fully appreciate the big ensemble numbers. The big opening of the titular song ‘Rent’ was a powerhouse of sound, light and dance, which could be felt through the screen and really let the audience know how the rest of this show was going to be and that we were in safe hands with this amazing cast.

The cast of 12 were ever present around the stage, watching the action when they were not a part of it, yet this was never distracting from the focus of the scene. With clever use of projection on the back wall, showing the live camera footage from Marks camera, a minimal set and a couple of pieces of furniture and chairs to play with to set the scene; the transitions between scenes was seamless, making the whole show flow easily.

The casting of this show was superb, with everyone getting their opportunity to shine, including the 4 featured ensemble cast. Tom Francis had the perfect voice for Rodger, adding surprising riffs that made you want to hang on to every word that he sang. One thing I was grateful for having a recorded version was that I was able to rewind and re-watch moments of the show where once was not enough, such as I’ll Cover You - Reprise. What an emotional and flawless performance by Dom Hartley-Harris! I watched it 4 times over before I could move on as I was in awe of the sheer talent; even if this did mean that I kept losing the connection, overall taking me about 4 hours to watch the whole show.

However, one thing that I noticed throughout was a lack of touching. In moments when it would seem natural for the characters to touch, such as dancing during Tango Maureen or in moments of intimacy, the characters would get close to one another but then stop themselves short of touching, which I found odd. The ‘socially distant’ tango during Tango Maureen felt a bit disjointed and the use of the microphone wire, which Jocasta Almgill (Joanne) was wrapping around herself and getting twisted in around the stage gave the impression of a boxing ring. This concept would have been good if Joanne and Mark (played by Blake Patrick Anderson) were actually trying to one up each other and take the lead during the tango, but at times it felt like they were flailing around and not facing off with each other. When the choreography was synchronised and outfacing, it worked! But not so much when they were facing each other trying to assert dominance. 

The no touching continued throughout Act 1 and I put it down to the fact that maybe because of the pandemic, the cast have been directed not to touch. But then at the end of Act 1, Rodger and Mimi hold hands and then throughout Act 2 there are more instances of touch, ending with an intentional camera pan of the cast joining together to hold hands for Finale B. I can only think that the no touching in Act 1 was deliberate, and as the story progressed and the characters came closer, so did the physical contact. But this was a bit confusing at times, as the no touching seemed so obvious that it was unnatural.

Despite this observation, the show was a feast to experience. Full of energy, angst, creativity and excitement, which shone during numbers such as Today For You (where Alex Thomas-Smith (Angel) was jumping on tables in heels!) and in La Vie Boheme, but was also full of sorrow, pain, love and community.

Hope Mill Theatre have yet again provided a remarkable revival of a classic; paying homage to the original brilliance of the show, yet putting their stamp on it. Everything on the creative side, from the casting, direction, choreography, music, sound and lighting all worked effortlessly together and I’m so glad that this production was able to happen, especially during this time. I hope that it gets the opportunity to get have a proper run in the theatre in the near future.

Review by Erenie Mavrommatis 

Rating: ★★★★
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