As a teenager obsessed with musical theatre at the time ‘Rent’ was running at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1998, I arrived at the New Victoria Theatre with a certain amount of trepidation. Jonathan Larson’s score was groundbreaking in the mid-90s, and for various reasons, every production I've seen since has left me bereft of the exhilaration and soul of the original. Not so with Bruce Guthrie’s revival, which oozes heart and energy from every pore whilst embracing the passion of New York’s East Village community in a time when they needed it most. Whilst the evening does carry with it a sense of nostalgia to a certain generation of theatre goers, its modern edge is pronounced enough that the large group of college students sitting behind me feel a contemporary resonance through a cast of characters relatable to anyone.
The focus is on bringing Larson’s characters to life in a way that is endearing to the audience, whilst capturing the balance between the subtleties of some with the vivacity of others. The ladies in the cast are exceptionally strong; Philippa Stefani’s gut wrenching portrayal of the troubled Mimi, a wonderful combination of fragility and sass combined with the angst and jitters of drug addiction, and Lucie Jones’ explosive Maureen bursting into the plot with arguably the best rendition of “Over The Moon” I have ever seen. I always felt hers is the one role which never quite fit when the show transferred to London, but Jones brings such a vitality to the character that we finally understand why ‘folks would kill to fill’ [Joanne’s] shoes! Billy Cullum and Ross Hunter clearly have the brotherly bond of long time roommates, though I would have liked a slightly greater contrast in vocal tone to fully convey the differences in their personalities. Hunter comes into his own in Act Two when he seems to relax into the anger within the character more convincingly, while Cullum’s edgy persona is at its most endearing in earlier numbers, “The Tango Maureen”, a delightful duet with Shanay Holmes, and the show’s anthem “La Vie Boheme”. The real core of the show comes in the show stopping performances of Ryan O’Gorman and Layton Williams as Collins and Angel respectively. O’Gorman’s vocal prowess is a beautiful assault on the ears throughout; from the softer, more playful tone of “Santa Fe” to the heart-breaking reprise of “I’ll Cover You” in Act Two. The light and shade in his subtle characterisation fuses perfectly with Layton Williams’ magical Angel. Showcasing his technical ability early on in “Today For You”, he goes on to draw on the more subtle side of the role to establish the relationship between Angel and Collins in a touching and moving light.
Anna Fleichle’s design and Rick Fisher’s lighting pay homage to the original set, which works especially well during Stefani’s rendition of “Out Tonight”, superbly choreographed by Lee Proud. Proud has managed to retain the punchiness of the first London production, whilst adding a contemporary feel to the big numbers. The subtle changes to the set and choreography towards the end of Act One work perfectly, and throughout the show the energy projects upon the audience relentlessly.
The events and characters in the story of ‘Rent’ might be more familiar in this day and age, and Guthrie’s production makes the show as relevant now as it was back then and tonight's audience left the auditorium with tears in their eyes and excitement in their voices. ‘Rent’ is still a wonderful experience. 'Rent' opens at Leicester Curve on 28th March and tours nationwide until May.