When I went: 5 January 2017
Location: The Other Palace, London
Performers: Christina Modestou (understudying the role of Maureen), Billy Cullum (Mark), Ross Hunter (Roger), Ryan O’Gorman (Tom), Javar La’Trail Parker (Benjamin), Layton Williams (Angel), Philippa Stefani (Mimi), Shanay Holmes (Joanne)
Creative team: Jonathan Larson (book, music and lyrics), Bruce Guthrie (director), Lee Proud (choreographer), Phil Cornwell (musical supervisor), Anna Fleischle (production designer)
Approximate price: £50
Special points: Energy; different musical styles
Best bit: Tango: Maureen
If I could change one thing: Bigger stage
Rent is an interesting musical, unusual in many ways. It is fairly new (first performed in 1993); its creator died just before its off-Broadway premiere; it deals very directly with issues such as AIDS, death, poverty and gentrification; it includes several characters of different sexualities without making this into a big plot point; and it is unafraid to try out several different musical styles. It is especially remarkable that there is a gay character (Tom Collins) who is not at all camp; musicals, at least the ones I have seen, rarely achieve this.
I jumped at the chance to see Rent in London, having never seen it but heard about its acclaim (Tonys, Pulitzer Prize and Drama Desk Awards) and heard some of the songs out of context. Luckily, it didn’t disappoint. Unusually for a musical, not only are the music and lyrics strong throughout but there is no second half dip (in fact, arguably more of the stronger songs are in the second half).
The energy of the performers, very necessary in a fast-paced story like this one, didn’t wane once and they had great onstage chemistry (apart from a slight lack of sizzle between Maureen and Joanne in Take Me or Leave Me – but Christina Modestou was understudying the role of Maureen so they may not have rehearsed extensively together). The whole impression was of a musical that is full of life and very funny. Layton Williams as Angel was especially impressive, with effortless dance moves, a heartfelt singing voice and a very appealing overall performance. Christina Modestou brought plenty of humour to the role of Maureen, Philippa Stefani managed to make Mimi likeable, sexy and someone that you root for and Shanay Holmes was perfect as the more grounded Joanne.
My favourite numbers were the Tango: Maureen, a welcome and unusual non-romantic duet with lots of wit, and La Vie Boheme, where the cast worked together with ease.
The stage of The Other Palace is perhaps a little small for some of the scene changes in Rent and big numbers could have done with a bit more space; there were also a couple of sound balance issues and flakes of snow falling before they were supposed to, but none of this detracted from the great overall performance. The audience was fairly young, as you might expect with the age of the characters and the very 1990s subject-matter.
I would recommend Rent if you want to see a fun, moving, energetic musical with some great numbers that breaks with the traditions of older musicals and holds your attention throughout.