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A review by Pauline Flannery for EXTRA! EXTRA!








RENT BenjaminStratton (Mark) Edward Handoll (Roger)

PhotoClaire Bilyard

Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson

Directed by Paul Taylor-Mills


Greenwich Theatre


5 – 16 September 2012


Rent has become something of a cult, no less so because of its opening number in Act Two, Seasons of Love, which is sung at various leavings and graduations. Compounded by the tragic, early death of its composer and lyricist, Jonathan Larson, and its rock/youth appeal, Rent is assured of a loyal audience whenever it’s revived. Larson saw it as the Hair for the 90’s, others, a rock musical for the MTV generation. Whatever the label, Rent is about being young, alive, and learning to survive.

Set in Manhattan’s Lower East side, Rent is narrated by would-be film-maker Mark Cohen whose room-mate Roger tries to write the perfect song. Ex-room-mate, Tom Collins, a gay anarchist, finds love with Angel, a drag-queen percussionist, and discovers an ultimate line in ‘Robin-Hooding.’ Close by is Mimi, an exotic dancer, in love with Roger, both are HIV positive, while Benny, Mimi’s ex, owns the apartment block and the next door lot and demands back-rent. The dramatic thrust: how will they all survive?

In the background is Mark’s ex, Maureen, now in love with Joanne, Harvard graduate and smart lawyer, who protests against scum-bag landlords. There is a riot, a network of phone calls, voice mails, which explode the mother-board, AZT and a funeral. The Action covers a year. 

Influenced by Puccini’s La Boheme - Rodolpho, Marcello, Colline and Bohemian Paris are swapped for Roger, Mark, Tom Collins and Alphabet City, NY – the action is fast-paced, the sound high-decibel. Occasionally this interferes with clarity, feeling like someone’s turned down the sound while the action remains at full-pelt. Yet Paul Taylor-Mills’ direction is slick, and David Shields’ imaginative design of windows, levels and the ubiquitous New York tenement fire-escapes transports you immediately. It echoes Friends. It echoes familiar.

Costumes by Andrew Beckett are ripped, printed, slashed and Doc Martened against city-slick, leather-clads and S& M brought to sizzling life in the Company’s rendition of ‘Rent’, ‘La Vie Boheme’ - two thumping show-stoppers in a riot of colour, texture and style. Yet it’s the quieter numbers such as ‘I’ll Cover You’, Angel and Collins, and ‘Without You’, Mimi and Roger, and the legendary ‘Seasons of Love’, soloist Maeve Bryne, which stay in the mind - universal anthems to love amidst a noisy, crazed city in which nobody sleeps. 

The central pair of Roger and Mimi, Edward Handoll and Steph Fearon, were evenly matched, particularly in the staging and vocal quality of ‘Without You’spine-tingling. The star is Zoe Birkett as Maureen in Over the Moon, side-straddling an oil-drum, juggling both an on-stage and main-house audience, oozing feral appeal, and in her funk-driven duet with Joanne, ‘Take Me or Leave Me’. Yet the most affecting twosome was Gary Wood and Mikel Sylvanus as Angel and Tom Collins, who made the world melt away when they sang. The music covers Gospel, Latin, Ballad, Blues and Rock influences, showing life in America at the end of the Millennium…..If there is a cavil, it’s that Rent tries to be too socially and too musically inclusive: there’s not enough pick and mix.

Ultimately, Larson’s autobiographical journey - backdrop the real Life Café on the Lower East Side, the riots in Tompkins Square Park against city-curfews, is laced by the personal. Larson’s girlfriend left him for a woman. He crafted away for seven years, whilst waiting tables at the evocative sounding Moondance Dinerin the 1990’s.

On January 24 1996, Larson gave his first and last newspaper interview. By January 25, he was dead. While Rent does have a feel-good hippie gloss, you can’t ignore its raw energy and appeal. And not at the moment, for Taylor-Mills’ cast at the Greenwich Theatre, lift the rafters in this vibrant, striking revival.

Tues – Sat. 7:30pm, Sun 9 & Sat 15 – 2:30pm, Sun. 16 – 6:00pm
Box Office 020 8858 7755
Tickets £20, £15
Greenwich Theatre
Croom’s Hill
London SE10 8ES

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