RENT Review: East Midlands Theatre

When Rent first got established Off Broadway it was hailed as something radical and fresh, an ‘exhilarating landmark rock opera’, something that had appeal for younger and less affluent audiences who could see characters like themselves represented on stage. Jonathan Larson’s musical is generally described as being a modern edgy take on Italian composer Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème.

In its exposition it traces the lives of seven young, aspirational New York based, artists who have come to the Big Apple to ‘make it’. Money poor and talent rich, they live in cramped conditions in a run down tenement in a quarter that seems to offer up a bright and lively existence but also one that often denies its promise. The action is placed in the 1990s, a time when HIV related diseases and AIDS were killing many in the gay and straight communities. It was a fearful and uncertain time. Yet for all this dark days forecasting, the musical Rent offers up inspiring messages of hope and joy in the face of fear. It becomes a celebration of amity and creativity. As it says in the lyrics, it reminds us to: measure our lives and the sole thing that matters is – love.

For this superb Christchurch Theatre Club production the first thing we notice on entering the theatre space is the large floor cloth that continues on down the entire length of the stage. The overall impression is shapes of bright primary colours. On the rectangular length of the stage are graffiti like shapes and figures stand out. Their creation has been stimulated by the inspirational work of USA gay artist Keith Haring whose work grew from the street culture of the 1980s New York. Born in 1958, Haring died of an AIDS complications due to illness. His huge body of radical neo-expressionist, pop art, street art and contemporary art works continue to be accessible and to inspire.

Almost as an artistic match to Keith Haring’s qualities, in Jonathan Larson’s Rent we find accessibility and inspiration through the stories and heartfelt songs of hope, love and pain. Best known are the songs Seasons Of Love, Light My Candle, Today For You, Tango Maureen, I’ll Cover You and La Vie Bohème.

Christchurch Theatre Club are renowned for their highly polished professional productions and Rent is no exception. The show buzzes with energy, has great commitment to the piece and offers up some real top class performances. These top class performances aren’t always the bolder showy pieces (which are great) but often real theatrical quality comes from the more intimate scenes; the love songs, the songs of support; the tender moments; the quality choral work. The CTC ensemble as a whole bring a tangible sense of New York community to this show and a beautiful blend of committed action and sound. The director/choreographer is Michael Gamble and Vicki Hing is musical director to her five piece band. The score has mixed styles of music; electric rock, Latin rhythms, soul, techno funk, evergreen and a bit of reggae. 

All seven of the main players deliver high quality performances. Tom Pinny makes a very believable would be film maker Mark Cohen. Ash Bright is vocally solid and sympathetic as Roger Davis. Michael Gamble does a great job portraying Tom Collins due to illness of original cast member Craig Butterworth. We wish Craig well and hope he returns to the stage this week. Kristian Cunningham is outstanding as Angel Schunard. His energetic and sympathetic portrayal has professional standard written all over it.

Lucy Brown brings us all the innate lovability, personal desperation and vulnerability of Mimi Marquez and her rendition of Out Tonight is sensational. Holly Easter’s commitment phobic, performance art loving lesbian Maureen Johnson rocks. Eve Taylor playing Joanne Jefferson wins us over with an alternative, less sharp suited – as often played – and more accessible character and frustrated lover of wild Maureen. Taylor’s acting is highly commendable and she sings with a real quality of voice particularly in the duet Take Me Or Leave Me.

Aaron Murray makes the very best out of a smaller but vital main role as Benny Coffin III and, if you’ll pardon the pun – he nails it.

In fact the whole cast nail this highly worthwhile experiencing production of Rent and CTC should be praised for their artistic and commercial bravery in presenting Rent as part of their musical theatre canon. It certainly lights our candle and the warmth and love of this production is worth anybody’s ticket money. Even if you have to delay paying the rent go and watch it while it runs at Loughborough Town Hall until Saturday 4th May.

Original source: East Midlands Theatre website