Comedy, tragedy and an incredible score – Caroline Gaunt reviews
I am not one for hyperbole but I think I can safely say that Rent is one of the most exciting productions I have ever seen in Durham. Whilst not perfect, the high points are so impressive that the lows seem pretty negligible in comparison.
The cast, for a start, are universally impressive. Stand-out performers are Joe Leather (Angel) and Simon Lynch (Collins), whose love story is played out with real tenderness and emotional depth from the comic highs to the devastating lows. Both actors are absolutely captivating, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member trying to stifle sobs as their relationship degenerated. Douglas Gibbs was also outstanding, managing to achieve a level of characterisation in his songs that few other actors reached, and bringing a vulnerability to Roger which perfectly complemented Elissa Churchill’s brittle Mimi.
Of the female performers, Tasha Cowley stands out: her stunning vocals are matched by her hilarious, almost teenager-esque characterisation of Maureen. For sheer physical comedy, her rendition of Over the Moon is one of the highlights of the production. Sarah Hollinshead also deserves a mention for her stunning solo in Seasons of Love, arguably the most anticipated song of the night (there was a palpable intake of breath as the first few bars rang out).
I said the show wasn’t perfect and I can go no further without addressing the one major issue I had with the production – the choreography. Whilst Rowan Williams-Fletcher and Charlotte Atkinson’s use of contemporary is commendable for the fact that it is so rarely attempted in conjunction with musical theatre, it is too often incongruous. The dancers in ‘Will I?’ just about manage to pull it off as it works well with the cyclical nature of the song, but elsewhere, although always impeccably danced, it is both distracting and out of place. It was, however, an incredibly brave risk to take, especially as Rent does not lend itself to choreography in the first place. Elsewhere, the music is played exquisitely, but a combination of a perhaps over-amped band and an under-miked cast sometimes leads to lapses in sound, and as Rent is predominantly narrated by musical numbers it is vital to be able to hear the lyrics.
However, the crucial point with this production was that there were enough moments of brilliance to overshadow any weaker moments, and whilst these kind of technical discrepancies are frustrating, they are never enough to impede enjoyment of the show.
Sound problems aside, the production is technically excellent. The set is ambitious but works. It manages to add much needed depth to the Assembly Rooms stage through inspired use of scaffolding, and, crucially, the cast navigate this skilfully (Joe Leather’s ability to bounce off scaffolding in heels that I couldn’t walk, let alone dance in, is uncanny). Accommodating the band on the stage in order to open up the apron was an intelligent decision from Gibbs. The elements of the set are simple, but effective, and to be honest the cast bring so much energy to the performance that the set doesn’t need to do any acting for them.
I was expecting a lot from Rent, and DULOG were firing on all cylinders. Rent is incredibly visceral as a production. Whilst the cast never underplay the inherent tragedy, the overriding message of hope cannot fail to be affecting, moving and ultimately uplifting. Viva la vie bohème – and then some.