Skip to main content

Home Culture Culture Film & TV

Review | “The 20th anniversary production of Jonathan Larson’s ‘Rent’ is hands-down the best since the original”

By Samuel McManus

The 20th anniversary production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent is hands-down the best since the original. What was groundbreaking at the time – bringing together gay and straight characters, drag queens and druggies in a rock milieu with HIV front and centre – could seem dated, even irrelevant, two decades on. After all, HIV is no longer a death sentence and all those whirring guitars aren’t exactly cutting-edge in a post-EDM world.

But what director Bruce Guthrie does with this revived Rent is beautifully simple. Unlike William Baker, whose Rent: Remixed in 2007 was a sacrilegious stab at disco-ing up the setting and score, Guthrie treats it with great respect – as a period piece, very much set in mid-1990’s New York, with Larson’s music done exactly as intended. And what music it is! The thunderous title track rocks the very foundations of London’s St James Theatre, I’ll Cover You is a lovely love song between a gay man and his cross-dressing beau, and Seasons Of Love is a soaring celebration of 525,600 minutes of a year in all these colourful characters’ lives.

The cast is fantastic and faultless. Layton Williams as the flamboyant drag queen Angel is the scene-stealer, not just because that’s how the role is written but also because his antics in heels are spectacularly performed. But everyone gets their place in the spotlight. Billy Cullum as wannabe moviemaker Mark does a terrific tango with Shanay Holmes’ Joanne, who has a spitfire relationship with performance artist Maureen (Lucie Jones), whose number about a cow jumping over the moon is truly hilarious. If Ross Hunter, as guitar-strumming Roger, is the weak link it’s because the character has always been the least interesting in the show, but he sings his lungs out and his troubled relationship with drug-addled dancer Mimi (Philippa Stefani, terrific in her Out Tonight solo) is nicely played.

There’s more dancing than I recall seeing in previous productions and choreographer Lee Proud should indeed be proud of his work, which helps quicken a first act that goes on a little too long and would probably have been slimmed by Larson had he not died from heart-related problems the day of Rent’s first preview.

Darkness descends in act two, with deaths, near-deaths, bust-ups and emotional blowouts, but what this terrific revival nails is the seize-the-day optimism of the No Day But Today anthem that closes the show. If you’re not crying your eyes out by this point, you must have left your heart in the cloakroom.

Rating: 5/5

Rent is at the St James Theatre, London, until 28 January, then tours the UK until 27 May. For more information and tickets, click here