Saturday 21st January, 2017. St James’ Theatre, London.
The reputation and history of this show are well documented, so I won’t repeat too much of it here, but suffice to say that this is a musical in a class of its own. Set in the not-so-dreamy side of dreamy New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic, this story packs more political and emotional punches than most. It explores a range of social issues with both intellectual and emotional intelligence – the writing boasts striking universality and the narrative threads are touching beyond expectation. Although of its time, it is also undeniably relevant today; a siren call for the betterment of society as a whole despite the multitudinous elements which divide us all. The themes of ‘Rent’ are constants in every variety of stage show, yet this feels special. It feels powerful. Under the direction of Bruce Guthrie, this production marking the 20th Anniversary is truly unmissable; a wonderfully affecting show which presents amongst the atmospheric set, eclectic music and towering talents of the cast, the human heart in all its flawed glory.
While the script and music are both significant triumphs, this production has at its disposal one of the strongest casts I’ve seen. There really is no weak link in this casting chain. On the contrary, there is an astounding amount of talent blazing across that stage for the entire show; comic, sobering, toe-tapping, rocking out talent. The cast bring the songs and the script to life in a way which I cannot fault and the music is possibly the most eclectic mix that I’ve seen in a good while, succeeding in manipulating the audience into the appropriate emotional contortion at any given point. The first half does feel a little on the long side (but that’s no major qualm considering the quality). It is a whirlwind of energy which sets up all the elements crucially needed for the second half, when the actors wrench hearts from chests in a massacre of the emotions.
Billy Cullum is nothing if not sparky in the role of Mark, offering lively commentary to the action – he creates a buzz which underscores every narrative shift beautifully. Ross Hunter has a brilliant voice which is every bit the marker of a West End star- spine tinglingly good. Shanay Holmes plays Joanne as somewhat of an authoritative mother hen with a beautifully rich and full voice while Lucie Jones makes a perfect partner – chaotic and unapologetically outrageous. I did recognise Jones from her time on The X Factor but they most certainly failed to give her the right material to truly shine – she is a bona fide powerhouse in the role of Maureen. Jenny O’Leary is deserving of mention here too- she carries one of the strongest voices despite not being a central role and she’s definitely one I’ll be watching out for in the future.Likewise, O’Gorman showcases some impressive power, and has a beautifully deep, striking tone. O’Gorman’s duet with Layton Williams for ‘I’ll Cover You’ was a definite highlight – along with Jones and Holmes’ show-stoppingly defiant ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ and the heartbreaking ‘Goodbye, Love’. There are too many songs to list as highlights if I’m completely honest, but it’s safe to say that the score for this show is dazzlingly eclectic and delivered with unbridled energy.
Now to comment on the blinding performance of Philippa Stefani. The role of Mimi is surely a gift of a challenge for any actress; the fiery scenes of the first half contrasting so glaringly with the second paves the way for a great actress to really shine and Stefani meets the challenge head-on. Not since seeing Cynthia Erivo’s performance in the heart-stopping ‘The Color Purple’ has my heart been so artfully broken in a theatre. I must have cried for at least fifteen complete minutes under Philippa Stefani’s spell. Her vocals sublimely underscored the touching performances of Layton Williams and Ryan O’Gorman, with her contorted face awakening that inveterate human tendency to mirror another’s emotions. With little time for recovery, Stefani began her next heartbreaking turn as the tragic sweetheart of this production. In fact, so compelling and so powerfully authentic was her performance, that she seemed unable to shake it off for the bows; how she destroys herself daily in this role is a mystery, but I have never seen a performance like it on a stage. On screen, yes. But not on a stage; usually the self-preservation of actors when tasked with a role such as Mimi is visible beneath the surface, but Stefani apparently held nothing back, and it was visceral, beautiful and quite frankly well deserving of a plethora of awards for this role. I can hand-on-heart say that she takes the title for the best dramatic performance that I have ever seen on stage – truly outstanding.
Transformations of vibrant, lovable characters into hollow, fractured shells has long since been a trope of successful dramas and musicals, but it’s rarely done so well as it is in ‘RENT’. Jonathan Larson was clearly a man attuned to the subtleties and daggers of the human condition. His creation of Angel is one of the most affecting things about the show as a whole, and Layton Williams was a perfect casting choice. Playful, seductive and vivacious – skilfully stopping just short of the drag queen stock character and giving depth to the lacquered exterior. The fate of Angel is a gut punch executed with skilled knowledge of what it is that breaks a human heart; it was a scene which put me in mind of ‘Steel Magnolias’, the only film to ever make me face-scrunch-cry. What Larson did in this show with characters like Angel and Mimi is superbly crafted.
There’s an awful lot of life and laughter in this show, with plenty of musical theatre gemstones attached, but it was the inescapably emotional aspects which left me reeling and which drives the passion of this review. As someone who is anything but quick to tears, I have seen countless shows and hardly cried at any of them. Admittedly, I’ve welled up and choked up at a fair few, with ‘Wicked’ in particular never failing to raise the tears, but it takes something very special to really make the tears really fall. The few to have conquered my defiant tear ducts in this way are the aforementioned ‘The Color Purple’, ‘Mother, Son’ by Jeffrey Solomon and ‘Memphis’. Now ‘Rent’ can be added to this limited list with deep appreciation. Put it this way: if it gets to the point where you can’t feel single tears anymore because your face has become a river, and you’re not even wiping them away anymore while also facing the very real danger of an audible heave, you’ve got yourself a thunderously powerful show. So if you’re someone who only sees a handful of shows in a year, make this one of them. It’s truly something special.
You can get your tickets here!