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Rent at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester review: ‘A skilful re-tooling of an LGBTQ classic’

After moving online for lockdown, this revival of a beloved musical remains just as compelling on screen.

By Will Stroude

Words: Stephen M Hornby

The 1990s saw the last gasps of alternative living extinguished in New York. This is before warehouses were converted into IKEA hungry apartments. It’s when warehouses were occupied, electricity was scammed, and life was lived precariously clinging to the other Others who’d also been kicked out of the mainstream. This is the world Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent captures, just on the brink of its extinction.

The seminal 1996 rock eulogy is a pantheon to the period. Camcorders record on to videotape. People are impressively on trend if they send an email. The warehouse where the musical is set is about to become a ‘cyber studio’. And HIV is still a death sentence. 

At the heart of this musical, though, are the timeless themes of love, illness, death, loss, self-expression and chosen family. And that’s why it still works 25 years on. Indeed in the year of Covid, the viral elements to the story have a new resonance that freshens the whole piece.

Jocasta Almgill (Joanne) and Blake Patrick Anderson (Mark) in Rent at Hope Mill Theatre. (Photography: Pamela Raith)

The narrator of the lives of the endangered squatters is Mark, a Jewish closet-case nerd who discovers his love of film can be turned into freelancing for a dodgy new channel. His bestie Roger is struggling to write one song, one great song, before he dies from an illness relating to HIV. 

Cue Mimi entrance, the pretty girl squatting nearby who has issues of her own. Inter-twined into their warehouse lives are also Angel, a drag queen with a knack for resolving conflicts, Angel’s lover Collins, and Joanne and Maureen a pair of S&M-loving lesbians. 

As Christmas arrives, the developers encroach and as demands for back rent mount, tensions begin to explode. The next year will change everyone’s live completely and not everyone will make it.

Jocasta Almgill (Joanne) and Millie O’Connell (Maureen) in Rent at Hope Mill Theatre. (Photography: Pamela Raith)

This new production of Rent is a significant success, skilfully re-gearing and re-tooling the piece in ways which still keep the essence very much intact. The intense emotional landscape is captured well, a testimony to Luke Sheppard’s direction, who blends the dark and lighter moments skilfully.

The choreography is not entirely successful. Tom Jackson Greaves has found some impressive sequences but there are also odd underwhelming moments, such as an AIDS demo which feels and looks more like a supermarket opening that a dangerous piece of street activism.

The cast is full of talent. Tom Francis captures the pain of the self-imposed isolation that Roger is going through brilliantly and makes his romantic decisions credible throughout. His voice is as capable of rock anthem grandstanding as it is of beautiful moments of intimate guitar ballading.

Dom Hartley Harris (Collins), Alex Thomas-Smith (Angel) and the Featured Ensemble in Rent at Hope Mill Theatre. (Photography: Pamela Raith)

Jocasta Almgill lights up the stage as Joanne every time she comes on. But the real star partnership is Dom Hartley-Harris as Collins and Alex Thomas-Smith as Angel. They create a delightful, detailed and deeply moving romance. Smith sings, struts and reads others perfectly, everyone’s new favourite Angel. And when Hartley-Harris’s wonderfully expressive voice rings out the pained reprise of ‘I’ll Cover You’, it is simply gut-wrenching.

Rent had an unusual development process, finished posthumously for Larson by a group of four creatives, and it shows in the uneven narrative at points. But this production makes the best out of the material, offering a heartfelt, intense and uplifting version that will communicate just as well on screen as it did in person.

Tickets to view ‘Rent’ online (fully captioned) are available now. For dates and to buy click here.