Book, music and lyrics: Jonathan Larson
Director: Paul Taylor-Mills
Reviewer: Elizabeth Vile
The appeal of Jonathan Larson’s Rent never seems to diminish and it returns to London with this fringe production at the Greenwich Theatre. A retelling of Puccini’s La Bohème for the 80s, it depicts the horrific impact of HIV/AIDS on a bohemian grouping of artists, musicians and dancers in New York’s Lower East Side, their lives already full of hardship as they struggle for survival while chasing their dreams.
Exploding with enthusiasm, fun, tenderness and heartbreak Paul Taylor-Mills’ production captures the fragility of the individual but the power of friendship through powerful music and powerful solo and ensemble performances. The importance of living each day to its fullest as well as fighting for change runs through each and every character on stage.
Every cast member should be commended for their commitment, enthusiasm and vocal ability, nearly all the company had solo singing to do and there was not a weak performance during the whole evening, all the ensemble numbers were slick and Richard Jones’ choreography captured the mood and characters within each song perfectly. Benjamin Stratton as Mark Cohen opened the show strongly and won the audience over immediately with his geeky but endearing character and strong vocals. His character really developed through the piece and the audience really felt for him and the involuntary isolation he felt as he watched his friends fight with an illness that he could never truly understand. The realisation that he would eventually loose everyone he cared about was heartbreaking.
The chemistry between Roger (Edward Handoll) and Mimi (Steph Fearon), Maureen (Zoe Birkett) and Joanne (Jamie Birkett) and Tom (Mikel Sylvanus) and Angel (Gary Wood) fizzed with sexual tension, making each relationship believable, exciting and ultimately touching. The reprise of I’ll Cover You was beautiful and brought a tear to the eye of more than one member of the audience, including this reviewer! Special mention should also go to Zoe Birkett’s performance in her opening number, Over the Moon, it was surreal but somehow captivating and fitted with the story very well. The cast members seemed to be enjoying it too!
The production was simply staged by using minimal props and a scaffold structure that added height to the set but also effectively housed the band beneath. Photos and posters on the walls that led us in made the stage feel bigger than it was and complemented Taylor Mills’ decision to have actors appearing through the audience and singing in the aisles. The use of fairy lights during Today 4 U and the lighting for La Vie Boheme/I Should Tell You was particularly effective and added to the fun of the first number and the romance of the second.
This is an amazing production full of life and passion, so it was a shame that there were the odd microphone problems throughout. Actors were not heard at the beginnings of some songs and the sound design felt particularly muddy during ensemble pieces, and the odd directorial choice did not always seem to work, like the fake snow.
The audience thoroughly enjoyed this clever and thought-provoking production and many of them showed their appreciation by giving a standing ovation during the finale.