Tuesday, July 5

RENT – Hope Mill Theatre

Seasons of Love

525,600 minutes

525,000 moments so dear

525,600 minutes

How do you measure, measure a year?

The opening refrain of the most iconic song in Jonathon Larson’s stunning 1988 reimagination of  Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’, never felt more timely and relevant than it did last night. As the first night of this radical and exciting new production simultaneously became the closing night, due to the imposition of the latest lockdown, we were left to ponder how much more the theatrical community has to do in order to be allowed to make a living in 2020. It has been 229 days since I last was allowed to review a live piece of theatre (329,760 minutes if you’re counting), and I floated on air past the temperature checks, socially distanced staff and in house screens, just so happy to be back seeing performance again that didn’t involve remotely logging in to a screen. Joe Houston and William Whelton, the estimable, award-winning duo behind this gem of a theatre in rapidly gentrifying Ancoats, have done everything possible to make their audience feel safe and secure, they are to be commended for the fortitude they have displayed in merely bringing this piece to life.

Photo: Pamela Raith

What is most remarkable is that the company have produced a piece that ranks amongst the best I have seen in over 40 years watching and reviewing theatre; a stunning work that imbues the original book and score with a new relevance to the Covid landscape that we all now inhabit. Director Luke Sheppard and Set Designer David Woodhead utilise every square inch of the compact stage to to allow the choreography of Tom Jackson Greaves to breathe. The original brick of this old mill is subtly rendered into the Manhattan East Village of the story, 1980’s iconography abounds without ever feeling nostalgic and the costume defiantly pulls the piece towards modernity. A bare curtain disguises the band from view for most of the proceedings and provides a backdrop for the camera work of Mark (Blake Patrick Anderson) to be displayed in ‘cinema verite’ style.

So, this stage is set in the most stunning way for the players to tell their story. RENT is simply the lives and loves of a group of penniless, bohemian artists who are coping with the outbreak of a killer disease threatening the fabric of society and all they know and love. Any of this sound familiar? The company of 12 actors have been living in an exclusive bubble throughout the rehearsal and performance schedule which has engendered an obvious togetherness that is palpable throughout the performance. Not only do they all convince as the long-term friends they portray but is evident they have had a hugely enjoyable time throughout and this joy inculcates itself into the dynamics of the show.

Photo: Pamela Raith

Part of the strength of RENT is that the book and music allow all the leading protagonists their moment in the spotlight throughout the entire 160 minutes performance. Roger (an astonishing professional debut from Tom Francis) displays both soulful softness and rock anthem chops during ‘Light My Candle’ and ‘What you Own’, when duetting with Mark (Blake Patrick Anderson) and Mimi (Maiya Quansa-Breed), Breed brings a playful humour to the tragic story of Mimi which was light and assured. Joanne (Jocasta Almgill) and Maureen (Millie O’Connell) play out a beautifully timed game of braggadocio during a blistering rendition of ‘Take Me Or Leave Me’ which is traditionally a RENT showstopper, tonight proving no exception. It was rightly joined by ‘I’ll Cover You’, the duet between Collins (Dom Hartley-Harris) and Angel (Alex Thomas-Smith) which had this reviewer frantically wiping huge tears from his masked face throughout, 

What pushes this production into a higher echelon is the depth given to the show by the featured ensemble. The power and beauty of the solo songs and duets is matched in energy and intensity by the remaining cast members, meaning the show never drops in its provision of spectacle and characterisation. Benny (Ahmed Hamad) provides a suitable villain as the idealist turned ‘Yuppie scum’ with Kayla Carter and Allie Daniel adding exceptional comic timing to a variety of vocal parts. The beauty of the choreography was in safe hands with both Isaac Hesketh and Bethany Terry leading the movement onstage with grace and dexterity, Terry particularly convincing as a menacing drug dealer. All the actors were present onstage throughout, seated around the edge of the stage which lent the production a pace which combined well with the spare use of close physical presence. This nod to social distancing onstage made the moments of closeness all the more poignant, a reminder of what we have lost in society this year.

Photo: Pamela Raith

The intimate nature of Hope Mill allowed the six-piece band led by Musical Supervisor Katy Richardson to fill the air with powerful guitar led tunes, whilst still allowing the pertinent lyricism of Larson to shine through. Director Sheppard succeeds in mining the humour of RENT in a way I have not seen before. Consequently, some songs had new depth and meaning revealed, ‘Tango Maureen’ and ‘Over the Moon’ both falling firmly into this category. Watching from our perspective, in the middle of a global pandemic, an undecided Presidential election and culture wars raging in the United States, each lyric felt freshly minted, relevant and appropriate for 2020.

Will I lose my dignity?

Will someone care?

Will I wake tomorrow

From this nightmare?

RENT continues via a number of online screenings from the 27th November. Visit https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/rent-online for tickets.

Verdict: A superb production which deserves to be seen by a large audience. A rocking, relevant RENT for our troubled times.

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 4th November 2020

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★

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