As “C-Day” looms, Leo Owen catches a Christmas show with a difference when Rent visits St George’s Hall as part of the musical’s 20th Anniversary Concert tour
Set in New York’s Lower East Side in the early 90s, Rent follows a group of struggling artists and musicians, battling against scrupulous landlords and the growing AIDs epidemic. One of Broadway’s longest-running shows and the winner of numerous awards, Rent celebrates twenty years in the limelight, focusing on gut-wrenching vocals rather than dazzling production.
Opening on Christmas Eve, the show moves between the tenants of a doomed apartment block on Avenue 8, depicting a year in their lives, using flatmates Roger (Rory Taylor) and Mark (Paul Ayres) as the musical’s cohesive spine. Unlike other Christmas-set shows, despite predominantly lively upbeat performances Rent is far from feel-good with deaths, near misses, relationship woes and a fairly tragic set of characters.
As it is based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera, La Boheme, in keeping with the genre, characters sing their every woe, unlike more traditional musicals that mix dialogue and song. Having heard songs from the show in a school’s practice production, I’m expecting to be uplifted by Jonathan Larson’s tunes and smirk at his risque lyrics.
The first half is disappointing with jarring slightly odd operatic style answer machine messages relayed by characters standing on an upper walkway. This series of Christmas phone calls interrupts what could have been one of the show’s strongest tunes as Roger plays Tune Up. Out of a staggering 20 plus songs in the show’s exceedingly long first half only five really stand-out; Life Support, is again, continually interrupted by annoying character interjections and Over The Moon is more surreal than funny as intended with a cow projected onto a back screen, lyrics including plenty of sexual innuendo and audience participation encouraged by Atomic Kitten’s Natasha Hamilton. Tango: Maureen is a fun song and one of the show’s more memorable. Will I? is genuinely moving and includes some sweet harmonising and cast members singing in round creating a wall of sound as Steve contemplates the final moments of living with AIDs. Mark’s narrative segments are poetic and Collins and Angel’s (Ian Stroughair) duet, I’ll Cover You, is sweet but collectively these five still fail to make Act One’s lengthy running-time feel any shorter.
Act Two, instantly wins me back by starting with Seasons Of Love – the song I’ve been waiting for. All-cast exquisite vocals don’t disappoint and a touching performance of Without You by Roger and Mimi is made all the more powerful by a spot-lit Angel wasting away in the background. There are plenty of equally heart-breaking moments throughout the show from Roger discovering his deceased girlfriend’s suicide note saying “We’ve got AIDs” to Mimi’s drug addiction.
A stripped-down performance with minimal costume changes and a two tier metal-framed set requires exceedingly strong vocals and songs, highlighting what a huge difference production value and gloss can make. A live band on stage add energy to the show while a screen at the back of the stage projects images of The Big Apple, pre-recorded cast segments and other complementary images, attempting to detract from the rather skeleton set. Phenomenal belting vocals and wrought emotional performances still somehow fall flat and I can’t help but blame the show’s songs and structure. The lyrics are random at times and transitions between scenes don’t always flow, resulting in a rather disjointed overall effect, making it difficult to connect with characters.
Although the show wisely includes refrains of its strongest numbers, Another Day and Seasons Of Love, in Act Two, its lengthy overall running-time is all too evident. Rent is certainly still topical but less so than when it was first produced and makes for a far from merry Christmas – instead you’ll leave feeling grateful for what you have and possibly slightly dazzled by the blinding stage lights.
Rent stopped at St George’s Hall on November 27 before continuing its UK tour.