Review of RENT the musical at the St James Theatre, London

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    Wednesday, December 14, 2016
    Review by:
    Mark Shenton

    "There's no day but today," goes a song in Rent, the iconic mid-90s Broadway musical; and there's no show for today quite like it, either. While some of its moments are very specifically of the time of its creation and have already passed into history -- as when characters discover their shared HIV positive status when their reminder alarms to take their AZT go off -- the show has, like all great art, acquired a universal resonance that goes far beyond its specifically Bohemian New York setting.

    Puccini's La Boheme inspired its plot, and it follows it closely in outline, portraying a pair of struggling artists fall in love -- here a club dancer and an aspiring rock musician, determined to write one great song before he dies -- but whose romance is doomed.

    Jonathan Larson, who wrote its book, music and lyrics, in fact, wrote one great show before he died -- literally the night before the show's first New York downtown preview in 1996 (of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm, not HIV or drug overdose). So his own life was a prescient example of the show's message, which is to seize the moment -- La Vie Boheme, as the the act one closer has it -- and celebrate love, as Seasons of Love, the Act Two opener, also does.

    This 20th anniversary revival of its original production, which arrives at London's St James Theatre as part of a national tour, celebrates both of those messages and lives them in a production that has an in-the-moment joie de vivre and is also full of love of this material and between its players.

    It may just prove to be the most successful UK iteration of the show yet -- while the original Broadway production ran for some 12 years, its original transfer here ran for just 18 months at the Shaftesbury; it also returned in limited West End Christmas seasons of a regional production in 2001 and again in 2002, and then in a short-lived 2007 production at the Duke of York's that was called Rent Remixed, and The Guardian dubbed Rent Reduced, stating that it had been "turned into a grisly, synthetic, pseudo pop concert with no particular roots or identity."

    There is a temptation, of course, to just sit back and let those glorious Larson songs wash over you, and a concert version in 2013 -- called simply Rent in Concert -- did what it said on the label at Hackney Empire and other touring venues. But Bruce Guthrie's new production restores the dramatic spine to it, yet also allows a stunning cast of singers to do its score full justice.

    Some of the raw edges of the show may have become blunted by familiarity, but there's so much to enjoy here, from the edgy rock contributions of Ross Hunter an Philippa Stefani as the ill-fated lovers Roger and Mimi, to the beautifully felt performances of Ryan O'Gorman and Layton Williams as another doomed couple of a gay man and his drag queen lover. And as Mark, the outsider who charts their lives through the prism of his film camera, Billy Cullum is both our narrator and a glorious performer in his own right. Intriguingly, Anthony Rapp, who originated that role in the show's first Broadway outing, is playing a solo cabaret in the St James Studio downstairs while this production is playing in the main house.

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