London’s St James Theatre bows out with a bang – before undergoing a name change – with a Christmas residency of Rent, a rock musical full of energy and life considering it’s a show about AIDS, poverty, drugs and death.
This multi award-winning musical is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a national tour. Those who have already seen it will know how great it is. Venues yet to come can only lick their lips in anticipation of the electrifying production heading their way in the New Year.
I remember its first visit to the UK in 1998 when a PR warned me: “It’s a new musical from America. We’re not sure if it’s any good.” It played for nearly 18 months in the West End and a staggering 12 years on Broadway.
Very, very loosely based on La bohème, Jonathan Larson wrote Rent to reflect the life he and his friends were leading in shabby, New Age Bohemia amid the lofts and art communes of SoHo in New York.
The story now appears almost a history piece, reflecting a year when death from AIDs in America peaked at more than 40,000. Yet its themes still resonate and it is relevant for its portrayal of young people finding their feet and gaining independence. Growing up has never looked so thrilling and so bleak.
Two decades on the production shows no sign of losing its verve.
There are outstanding performances from the ensemble, a standout turn by Layton Williams as high-kicking drag queen Angel, raunchy rock musical numbers, Lee Proud’s exciting, acrobatic, choreography, and pacey direction from Bruce Guthrie. It brought the audience to their feet on opening night.
The stage is dressed down in industrial chic, the bare bones of a squalid loft building where a collection of arty misfits live.
Mark (Billy Cullum), a struggling documentary maker, wanders around with a video camera, capturing life, while his HIV room-mate, Roger, a former junkie whose girlfriend killed herself, attempts to write the definitive rock song before he dies.
Their best friend is Tom Collins, a “computer genius, teacher, and vagabond anarchist” who, after being mugged, is saved by Angel, in more ways than one.
Also in the building is Mimi, a fragile, vulnerable teenager who is old beyond her years. Fleeing a life of sexual abuse she’s making a living as a dancer and taking whatever drugs she can get to make it through the week.
The building is owned by former college chum Benjamin Coffin III who has fallen on his feet by marrying well. He reluctantly tells the group that he has plans to redevelop the area and they’ve all got to move.
The gritty realism of their situation, often shocking and disturbing but also anarchic and humorous, is played out over two hours. Relationships stand and fall, lives altered and futures thrown into doubt.
Philippa Stefani gives a moving performance as the tragic Mimi as does the endearing Williams, a former “Billy” from Billy Elliot, as the warm-hearted Angel. His athletic dance sequences were exhilarating to watch.
Ryan O’Gorman quietly underplays the burly Tom Collins, who finds love with his Angel, but both he and Ross Hunter as the grungy, emotionally damaged Roger, have powerful, throaty rock voices that I could have listened to all night.
The extended opening number Tune Up/ Voice Mail #1/ Rent sets the pace and the show’s songs veer from raunchy rock, to emotional ballads and even a tango number. They’re hard-hitting, playful and emotional, delivered with power by the cast of 16.
A show that still shocks and sizzles even after 20 years. Larson, who died unexpectedly just before its premiere in 1996, would have been proud of the legacy he left behind.
Rent runs at St James Theatre until January 28 before continuing its 2017 tour:
January 31-February 4, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne February 6-11, Churchill Theatre, Bromley February 14-18, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh March 28-April 1, Leicester Curve April 3-8, Wales Millennium Centre April 11-15, Cheltenham Everyman Theatre April 18-22, York Theatre Royal May 1-6, Lighthouse, Poole’s Centre For The Arts May 9-13, Belgrade Theatre May 16-20, Nottingham Playhouse May 23-27, Assembly Hall Theatre,Tunbridge Wells
Top dollar Rent marks 20th anniversary with an electrifying & gritty revival performed by a talented ensemble.