MARK DANCIGER is impressed by a phenomenal production despite struggling to follow some of the plot.
RENT is a complex show. It is occasionally confused, flawed and incoherent, and yet simultaneously heartfelt, touching and breathtakingly beautiful, with fantastic performances and high production values. The large production team and talented ensemble cast, led by director Gabbie Bird, have done a remarkable job in bringing the raw energy of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer prize winning musical to the ADC. However, it is a difficult show to pull off as there is no obvious narrative, and the team occasionally fail to inject the required sense of purpose into the musical.
Many of you will already know and love the show, and will probably already have your tickets booked. For those of you who, like me, only know the show from school choir performances of ‘Seasons of Love’, let me give a quick overview. RENT is a rock opera, loosely based on Puccini’s La Boheme, and is set in New York in the 90s. It focuses on a ragtag group of artists and bohemians, struggling to survive impoverished conditions, and who are under the shadow of the AIDS pandemic. Throughout the play, characters fall in and out of love, form new friendships and suffer tragic losses. Though there is no singular narrative as such, there is a general sense of progression, of characters finding their purposes in life.
When RENT is at its strongest it is incredibly powerful. Particularly impressive are the intimate duets that pepper the show, most notably those between gay anarchist professor Collins and drag queen Angel. These duets tugged at the heartstrings of every audience member in the house, and were lent additional power by the extraordinary strength of the performances. Zak Ghazi-Torbati’s Collins commanded the stage with an expressive performance and even more expressive voice, whilst Toby Marlow’s Angel was staggeringly authentic.
The larger numbers were also impressive- ‘Seasons of Love’ predictably brought the house down, and ‘La Vie Boheme’ was energetic and well-choreographed. In fact, the whole show’s choreography was extremely well done. The cast moved fluidly around the stage, filling every corner, and we were never short of something interesting to look at.
The music was also sharp and well performed, and the singing sounded great. Some of the songs in RENT are up there with the best of musical theatre- ‘La Vie Boheme’, ‘Rent’ and the moving ‘Finale’ were all wonderful. Whilst some of the other songs stray too far into cliché or repetitive tedium, and have some truly dire lyrics, there are enough good numbers to keep the audience entertained.
Technically the show is also impressive. The set design is full of surprises- at first it seems simple, but hidden features are constantly exposed, from moving stairs and glowing windows to hidden manhole covers and flown-in chain link fences. The lighting design is also excellent- the stage shimmered with vivid colours and often exploded in flashes of bright light. There were some issues in the sound mixing, with some mics frequently being too loud or too soft, but I’m sure these will be fixed in future performances.
RENT is a challenging play for the audience, in that there is no plot as such, nor any one central character to latch on to. The closest we get to that is Oli MacFarlane’s quiet filmmaker Mark, but he is never really given enough of a presence, as Bird frequently puts the emphasis on the actions of the rest of the ensemble cast, rather than using Mark as the focal point. This is problematic, as none of the characters (with the possible exception of Angel and Collins) are given enough stage time for us to get a grasp of their characters or understand their motivations.
Furthermore, this often leads to confusion, as we quickly forget who some of the characters are, and the nature of the relationships between them. I was constantly perplexed by why characters suddenly seemed to hate each other, or just as suddenly fall back in love. This confusion wasn’t helped by some unnecessary multi-rolling, and unclear dialogue due to the sound issues.
Overall, this is a very accomplished production, which is slick, well designed and well performed. My only issues with it stem from not from the production, but from intrinsic problems with the show itself, and from the production’s occasional failure to deal with these problems. However, if you know and love the show, this will be no barrier for you- you’ll undoubtedly have a great time.
67%- A strong 2:1