RENT charts the story of a group of friends living in New York’s Alphabet City in the early nineties, a ghetto of Manhattan synonymous with starving artists. Written by Jonathan Larson, who famously died the night before the premiere performance, it’s based closely on Puccini’s opera La Bohème retaining many of the character names but replacing the 19th century plague of tuberculosis with what was – at the time of first production – the far more dominant issue of AIDS.
The main players are Mark, an aspiring filmmaker who shares an apartment with musician Roger. Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen is a performance artist who is now in a lesbian relationship with lawyer Joanne. Roger is involved with downstairs neighbour Mimi, a club dancer and drug addict. Collins is Roger and Mark’s mutual friend who finds romance with drag queen Angel who comes to his aid after being mugged on Christmas Eve. Just the everyday tale of city folk, no?
Make no mistake, RENT is an assault on your emotions. The story deliberately grabs you by the throat and occasionally shouts at you to deal with its central theme of AIDS. It’s no spoiler to reveal not all the main characters make it through to the end. To sit through dispassionately means you either didn’t engage with the plot or your heart is a cold black lump of coal. The show ran for 12 years on Broadway, and on its final performance in 2008 huge crowds assembled on both sides of 41st Street just for the chance at a last day ticket. Never underestimate how much RENT touched people’s lives, including this reviewer’s, having been a fan since first seeing the show in the West End in 1998.
Director Paul Taylor Mills clearly knows and loves this musical with equal passion. The production is faithful enough to the original to delight even the most diehard Renthead, but with beautiful enhancing details that expose the handiwork of someone who never lets the story go out of focus. RENT’s large cast of leading characters can occasionally be difficult for the audience to grasp, but there’s a clarity to this version which brilliantly defines them.
Benjamin Stratton’s Mark is scarily similar to the original played by Anthony Rapp – but that is no criticism. Close your eyes and you can hear the Broadway cast recording. Former Pop Idol Zoe Birkett brings a powerhouse performance as Maureen, making the often-awkward Over The Moon scene a hilarious highlight of the evening. Mikel Sylvanus nails Collins with a voice as gorgeous as warm molasses and a mercurial on-stage chemistry with Gary Wood playing Angel. If ever there was a part seemingly written for an actor, then Wood’s Angel is it. Wood’s performance was probably the pinnacle of this show for me, save for the Seasons Of Love solo delivered magnificently by Maeve Byrne, which deservedly brought thunderous applause from the auditorium.
I must also name check Richard Jones for his extraordinary choreography. He weaved the audaciously-large 28-strong cast through, over and around set designer David Shield’s eclectic urban New York framework, turning what could have been a messy crowd scene into a beautifully realised visual spectacle.
Yes, you could find quibbles. But quibbles so dilute that I would be churlish to bring them up. The fact is, in context, this is probably the best off-West End production of RENT I’ll ever see. To borrow from the show’s lyrics; I can’t believe the size of the show; I can’t believe it’s only on for two weeks; I can’t believe it’s only twenty quid a ticket. You could drop this show, with very little modification, onto Shaftesbury Avenue and happily pay three times the entrance price. An absolute must-see.