Fresh from a sell-out London run at the St. James, Rent has launched into its 20th anniversary tour with passion, grit and standing ovations. The Churchill Theatre, Bromley was the next to experience the power and emotion of this musical classic in a first performance that left few dry eyes in the house.
Inspired by Puccini’s opera La bohème, Rent tells the moving story of a group of young artists struggling to survive in New York City’s East Village in the thriving days of Bohemian excess. Their relationships are tested by the struggles of HIV/AIDS, sexuality, poverty and loss.
The production, directed by Bruce Guthrie, certainly does the late Jonathan Larson proud, bringing this hard-hitting tale to the stage with determined intensity yet responsible modesty, a balance never easy to find.
Casting to perfection, Rent has a wealth of talent in it’s midsts. Lucie Jones, recently crowned as the UK’s Eurovision entry, gives a masterclass in musical theatre, delivering Maureen’s protest with ridiculous wit and hilarity. Philippa Stefani is truly immersed in Mimi’s character, beautifully and tragically illustrating the extremity of her highs and lows, oozing character right until the end, not even indulging herself in a beaming bow.
Billy Cullum (Mark) and Ross Hunter (Roger) both charm the audience with believable purpose. Ross’ rendition of One Song Glory is stunning and Billy brilliantly holds the show throughout. Ryan O’Gorman’s portrayal of Tom, the joy at finding love and tragic heartbreak of losing it, is particularly moving. The relationship between him and Angel (played by Harrison Clark due to Layton William’s injury) is endearing until the last moment and Harrison steps into the role superbly.
Despite highlighting the specific triumphs, the cast as a group boast maybe the best collective vocals of any show around right now, despite some weaker voicemail sections. Seasons of Love leaves many speechless, although Shanay Holmes’ (Joanne) and Lucie’s rendition of Take Me or Leave Me is a personal highlight.
This production seamlessly fuses the elements at hand to great effect. Staging, lighting and set design reflects the edgy, uncertain times the characters face, while musically the rock elements flourish behind the vocals. My only gripe would be the occasional audio blip and the seemingly unnecessary turning of part of the set, which to me adds little but distracts greatly.
I’ve never been entirely convinced by the film, and by watching it on stage I was reminded of the true power of live performance. Everything about this show makes you invest and involve yourself not only in the individual stories but the overarching themes, a thing the film never quite succeeded in doing in my eyes. The theatre forces you to listen; forces you to give a damn about these people’s plights in a way that the media or TV just can’t match. Couple that with the stunning sound and you’ll soon find yourself stifling sobs within a silent, positively gripped audience. The 20th anniversary tour of Rent is a knockout sensation.