RENT was a phenomenon. It began as a small Off
Broadway show that seemed to capture the mood of a generation of young New York
bohemians struggling with poverty and AIDS; a positive diagnosis in those days
felt like a death sentence and the challenge was how to live with it rather
then beat it.
During the previews its author Jonathan Larson died
himself, making the headlines and ensuring the show received enough high
profile, emotive attention to sweep it to a triumphant Broadway opening.
The musical moved to the cavernous Shaftsbury Theatre
in London where its rough and ready vibe got lost and it closed pretty quickly.
I directed the second ever production, which was also hampered by over
ambitious producers mounting it in an inappropriately huge Dublin venue. For
the next decade it trundled on in New York, downsizing and buoyed up by stars
from reality TV, whilst a series of bizarre re-launches attempted to replicate
the success over here. A production opened starring a super model that couldn't
sing and Kylie's art director was even hired to attempt an update loathed by
critics and fans alike.
The current revival at Greenwich theatre is a reminder
of what a fantastic show it was and can be when played in a raw, scruffy
production in a 200-seat venue. There are still reality TV contestants in the
cast but on this occasion they, like the rest of the company, are brilliant
singers and the right age to bring an amazing energy that makes the hairs stand
up on the back of your neck.
I defy anyone to follow the plot on first or even
second viewing, I presume Larson would have sharpened up the story if he'd
lived, but eagle eared audiences may just be able to deduce from the odd line
that a group of artists - an indie film maker, a lesbian performance artist and
her lawyer girlfriend, and an ailing rock singer, a lap dancer and a drag queen
are in danger of losing their squat when the owner wants to convert it into a
studio. Our heroes stage a performance art piece in the parking lot but to no
avail and over the ensuing year they fall out, sell out or die of AIDS. Happily
there's a redemptive ending in which the life force conquers all.
The whole thing is atmospherically staged by ambitious
young director Paul Taylor-Mills, the best production I've seen from him by
far, with electric choreography by Richard Jones, evocative lighting by Stuart
Pardoe and a terrific band led by Hew Evans. You won't hear better rock singing
anywhere in London, from principals or ensemble. The production is a triumph
and well worth a trip to Greenwich for its short run.
Meanwhile at the Menier Chocolate Factory Anthony Rapp
who played Mark, the indie filmmaker and narrator of RENT in the original
production and movie reminisces about the early days, Larson’s death and his
own mother's demise from cancer.
It's quite an interesting story, the short evening
never drags and he's an engaging enough performer but I'm surprised by the slew
of five star reviews it received in Edinburgh - it's not difficult to move an
audience when you invite them to think about the death of a mother. However,
mercifully, it stays just the right side of mawkish even when, inevitably, the
show closes with Rapp reprising RENT weepy, Seasons of Love, after mom's
RENT ***** (Five Stars) I can't imagine a production
capturing the energy and anarchy of Larson's vision better then this.
Without You (***) an interesting account of how the
RENT phenomenon began and a sad, if needless, reminder that good people
RENT at Greenwich Theatre until September 16th
Without You at the Menier Chocolate Factory until