This award-winning (a Pulitzer no less) rock musical at Cheltenham's Everyman Theatre is a high-kicking, all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza!
Happy birthday to Rent! Twenty years old but still as fresh and perky as all the characters’ derrieres in this new anniversary production of Jonathan Larson’s rock musical based on Puccini’s La Bohème, which opened last night at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham. The show caused quite a stir back in the 1990s when it first hit the stage in New York, not least because Larson died suddenly of an aneurysm on the night it previewed, which wraps the show in the kind of emotional intensity that is played out on stage. For while you get your full quota of song and dance, humour and energy, there’s a tragic epicenter that doesn’t half tug at the heart strings. It went on to play Broadway for 12 years picking up awards on its way – Tonys, Obies, even a Pulitzer – and this new run is no less compelling.
The story is set in New York’s East Village, the birthplace of punk and post-modern American art in the late 1980s, and the counterculture atmosphere of the edgy neighbourhood of Alphabet City is brilliantly conjured by the scaffolding-style set with real American street lights and phone box – I half expected Jean-Michel Basquiat to walk on stage in high-waisted jeans and DMs and start spray-painting the joint. The plot revolves around a group of impoverished artists scratching a living, struggling to pay the rent and being rent apart by HIV and AIDS. (Yeah, clever title, eh?) I was a bit apprehensive of the HIV theme as I was a tender age at the height of the AIDS crisis – I can still feel the fear instilled by those tombstone television ads – so it’s not a subject matter I run towards. But it’s brilliantly explored in the show and is very moving especially in the second act when (spoiler alert) there is a death.
Don’t think you’re going to leave the show feeling ravaged though, because there’s a lot of uplifting song and dance going on, not least by the cross-dressing Angel, played brilliantly by Layton Williams, whom you may know as the camp pupil Stephen in Jack Whitehall’s class in Bad Education. In the first act he steals the show with his performance of Today 4 U in full drag. If you’re looking for a bare torso moment, this is it, but you’re probably going to be more distracted by his legs, which are to die for – so perfectly formed, so smooth, so unfair! The acting and singing is exceptional, not least by the two main characters, flatmates Mark, an aspiring documentary film maker played by Billy Cullum, and Roger, a grief-stricken musician played by Ross Hunter, who reminded me of this guy I used to fancy in 1995, who reminded me of Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall. Fit basically.
There’s a real range of styles in all the cast’s voices and every one of them can belt out a tune. In fact, the character of Maureen, an HIV-positive, bisexual performance artist, was played by Lucie Jones’s (our Eurovision entrant this year!) understudy, Christina Modestou, who was really rocking a star-of-the-show voice, as was Kevin Yates who stood in for Ryan O’Gorman as Tom Collins, a gay anarchist professor who falls in love with Angel.
As you can tell, we’re definitely in the land of bohemia in this musical and my favourite song had to be La Vie Boheme, which the cast sing after Maureen’s out-there performance of Hey Diddle Diddle (Marina Abramovic eat your heart out), to celebrate their unconventional lifestyle and includes, hats off to Larson, ‘mutual masturbation’ in the lyrics (there’s quite a lot of risqué language and, er, simulated action in the show, so don’t bring your offspring). I also loved Seasons of Love, which kicks off the second act. It’s a bit of a wave-your-lighter-in-the-air number and sets the tone for some heartbreak – Angel and Tom, Maureen and her girlfriend, Ivy League-educated lawyer Joanne (played by Shanay Holmes whose voice is spellbinding), and Roger and Mimi, an HIV-positive, Hispanic-American club dancer and drug addict played by Philippa Stefani, who’s got moves that give Beyoncé a run for her money.
As Roger wraps Mimi in his arms in the final scene and serenades her with the love song he wrote for her, Your Eyes, a tear may have escaped from the Muddy eye and then the Finale, well, I was toast by then – “Forget regret or life is yours to miss… No day but today”. So true *choke*. And I wasn’t alone in feeling it. As the cast took their bow, the whole audience got to their feet to give them a standing ovation, and we were all one together, living life for today! Phew. You gotta go and see this – it’s cathartic!
Rent is on at the Everyman Theatre until Sat 15 April. Tickets