Review: Rent

Billy Cullum (centre) as Mark with the cast of Rent

Billy Cullum (centre) as Mark with the cast of Rent

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MUCH loved by youth theatres, drama colleges, and amateur musical societies, a great mythology has built up around Jonathan Larson’s flawed ‘master-piece’ Rent, not least because its creator died the night before its opened off-Broadway. In short, it has become a cult.

Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street

* * * *

This week, the 20th anniversary production brings a boisterous cast to town.

Played out on Anna Fleischle eye-catching industrial set, which allows Lee Proud to introduce some chunky choreography to compliment Phil Cornwell’s pulsating score, it’s an exuberant celebration of Larson’s work.

As we meet the artists struggling to survive in New York City’s East Village, the spectre of HIV/AIDS is never far away.

Mark and Roger live in a warehouse loft due for rejuvenation. As Roger struggles to write the perfect song, Mark comes to terms with splitting from his girlfriend Maureen by documenting life in Alphabet City through the lens of his camera.

There’s Mimi, a good time girl with a habit and her eye on Roger, Angel, an ailing drag queen, and Tom, his lover. And let’s not forget performance artist Maureen’s new partner, Joanne.

All are fighting their own, often intertwined battles, while united against Benjamin Coffin III who looks to redevelop the area.

Driving the narrative, Billy Cullum’s Mark robustly anchors the piece. He’s matched note for note by Ross Hunter’s solid Roger and Philippa Stefani’s fragile Mimi.

As Angel, understudy Jordan Laviniere puts in a gutsy shift, while Ryan O’Gorman’s Tom boasts the best voice in the production. Rich and fluid it brings an unexpected depth to his character.

Which serves to highlight the problem with the first act.

The best part of an hour and a half long, it is self-indulgent and, despite the best efforts of the company, many characters lack truth.

That’s partly due to the muddy sound, a general lack of diction, and direction that concentrates not so much on the characters’ emotional needs as the actors’ abilities to sing and dance.

Thankfully Act 2 sees a change in gear and performances lift across the board.

Powerfully delivered, Seasons Of Love, sounds the rallying call.

The final scene between Angel and Tom is played exquisitely by Laviniere and O’Gorman, capturing the hopelessness of their plight and the true desolation of the situation. Truly touching.

There are also five well-tuned cameos from the excellent Jenny O’Leary to watch for.

That Rent ran for 12 years on Broadway is a surprise. It lasted 18 months on the West End. In many ways a show of its time, it nevertheless received a standing ovation from some.

And did I mention that Lucie Jones, as Maureen, stopped the show with her ‘performance art’ piece that demanded the audience ‘Moo’ along? Bizarrely, she did.

Run ends today