RENT AT THE ARENA THEATRE, WOLVERHAMPTON
Theatre Run: Friday 26 - Saturday 27 July
Performance Reviewed: Saturday 27 July (matinee)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
Most major musicals bring their own set of challenges and dilemmas to an amateur adaptation, be it a requirement for expansive sets and staging, period or niche costume and production design or elaborate, demanding choreography, all of which often have to face the constraints and practicality of budget and available talent. Relatively speaking, RENT is a somewhat barer, more raw piece of musical theatre in those particular regards, and one whose expressionist, bohemian slant makes it a more malleable beast for the amateur treatment. However, therein lies the inherent challenge of tackling the show - there are no major set pieces or spectacle to hide behind, it is a story and production that is raw, pure, innately human and relatively uncompromising - and if the cast cannot rise to the occasion the show can be a floundering mess of youthful post-modernism and half-baked theatrical expressionism. It truly is a show that is only as good as those in whose hands it is placed.
Fortunately, Midlands-based Nine Productions have assembled a team of creatives and performers who have more than managed to rise to the occasion, resulting in a distinctive, confident, exuberant and thoroughly impressive interpretation of the show with a style and flavour all of its own. In fact, owing in equal parts to it’s young, aspiring cast who perfectly mould themselves into RENT’s idealistic boho ensemble, as well as the terrifically resourceful yet almost industrial, stripped-back approach to design and staging, meant this particular production of the show came across as particularly accessible and authentic, shedding any semblance of amateur compromise and honouring the rock-opera flavouring of the original stage production through a youthful, vibrant filter of its own. It felt far more truthful and sincere than the majority of local or amateur productions I have reviewed and washed away any memory of the overwrought, sedate yet saccharine 2005 movie adaptation in particular.
Based (loosely) on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, RENT follows the story of a group of friends who have adopted the Bohemian values and virtues of life in late 1980’s New York City. Over the course of a year we are privy to love, loss, drugs, disease, death, protest, rebellion and a whole tour-de-force of the human condition given an extra dose of rock and angst. The diverse, layered cast of characters includes young filmmaker Mark (Maison Kelly) whose passion and dedication to his craft is accused of being a barrier to any intimacy or relationships of his own, HIV-positive songwriter Roger (Liam Sargeant) who is longing to craft a musical legacy in the form of one elusive, enduring song before he dies, and Collins (George Stuart), a gay philosopher who is also suffering from AIDS and whom begins a relationship with kindred spirit, optimist drag queen and fellow sufferer Angel Dumott Schunard (Daniel Guzman).
Added into the mix is Mark’s ex - now-lesbian actress and protestor Maureen (Sacha Savory), her current girlfriend, lawyer Joanne (Heather Mills) whose sexual persuasion is to the ire and disregard of her profession and family, Benjamin ‘Benny’ Coffin III (Alec White), a former roommate of the boys who now stands against their virtues and ideals as an entrepreneurial businessman seeking to evict the homeless around them in order to build a technological cyber studio, and erotic dancer Mimi Marquez (Stephnie Guest), who quickly forms an intense bond with Roger and is suffering from drug addiction and being HIV positive herself.
Purely from that overview of character, the wealth of issues and subject matter the show tackles is obvious, and yet the real strength and potential of RENT, and what Nine Productions perfectly capitalise on, is the artistic and interpretative manner in which so many of them are addressed and portrayed. There is plenty of high drama and emotion, and yet no melodramatic forcing of the issues of drugs, disease or poverty down the audiences throats. Rather, the real strength of the show comes through its brilliant, eclectic soundtrack, which remains as intelligent and allegorical as ever, and has been met by director Tye Harris and choreographer Anna Forster’s genuinely masterful and apparent understanding of the music and content they were working with, letting each nuance of character, issue or irony leap from song into staging and action. It’s a real rarity to sit and find yourself really processing and investing in the symbolism and imagery of what is being shown on stage, and realising the whole thing to be painting a powerful, unified picture. As prefaced at the beginning of this review, RENT does not at it’s core boast an overly showy approach, so it’s impressive to see the talent behind this production drawing every ounce of potential out of practically each number and exchange. Too often levels, space, blocking and movement are neglected as equally powerful ways of inferring meaning, evoking emotion or creating imagery, with often the music and book being left to do all the work. It’s particularly noteworthy and impressive then to see the disparate elements of musical theatre so cleverly harmonised and put into place in an amateur production as this, with some of the resourceful and inventive choreography and direction here easily worthy of the West End.
Fortunately, the vision and talent Harris, Forster and their colleagues Co-producer/Production Manager/Lighting Designer Joanne Marshall and Musical Director Adam Joy bring to their interpretation of RENT is matched by an incredibly talented and game cast of local players. Maison Kelly and Liam Sergeant both give grounding, naturalistic performances amongst the more colourful turns around them, rooting the show with an earnestness and rich vocals, with Kelly’s Mark offering a little more in the way of character and Sargeant’s Roger offering some powerful anguish and genuinely impressive belting. Sacha Savory is a wonderfully gifted physical actress and comedienne, her Maureen an irrepressible, kinetic and endlessly entertaining stage presence and force of nature that is perfectly countered by Heather Mills’ wry, confident and suitably sassy turn as Joanne. The duo are a sublime pairing, bouncing off of each other with delicious relish, their Act 2 signature piece ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ being one of the shows most confident and entertaining highlights. George Stuart is something of a revelation as Collins, finding a likeable, easygoing charm to the character early on and eventually giving an incredibly powerful and moving turn when circumstances take a turn for the worse as the show progresses. With practically faultless, powerful vocals and complete ownership of and investment in his character, he is certainly another talent to watch amongst the ranks of Nine Productions. Finally, from her electric, virile and attention-demanding arrival with 'Light My Candle', Stephnie Guest sings and dances up an absolute firestorm as Mimi, nailing the sultry physicality yet rock chick vulnerability perfectly, and with some confidence can say she offered quite possibly my new favourite interpretation of the character.
The ethos and message of RENT is at once bewilderingly diverse yet staggeringly simple, above all being a show about love, art, expression, truth and a liberal dose of carpe diem and living for today. It touches upon serious, powerful subject matter but as mentioned does so in a way neither heavy-handed or dictatorial, presents a varied yet distinctive and layered cast of unique, engaging characters and still manages to feel vibrant and current almost 20 years after its original opening. That all of this has been recreated to an at-times staggeringly professional and inventive standard by a local production company is a reassuring indicator of the breadth of talent and potential that Midlands theatre continues to produce. The production team, cast and all involved at Nine Productions have brought RENT to a local stage with a passion and understanding for the source material that cannot be understated, and have a great deal to be proud of. It is with enormous anticipation that Midlands-based fans of the industry should eagerly await whatever is next for this highly promising company.
Star ratings are not provided for local productions.
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RENT has now finished its run at the Arena Theatre in Birmingham.
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