Rent – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Book, Music and Lyrics: Jonathan Larson

Director: Bruce Guthrie

Reviewer: James Garrington

Since it first saw the light of day in 1996, Rent has become something of a cult show. It was inspired by Puccini’s La Boheme and is set in and around the bohemian East Village in New York where an assorted group of people is struggling to get on with their lives and friendships. It is set against a background of the AIDS epidemic, but that is not the entire focus of a story which is also about friendship and self-discovery.

Jonathan Larson’s Rent contains some adult themes and is both gritty and poignant with some very touching moments in a score that is a mixture of rock, ballad and gospel. Although the show itself may not be as well-known as some, undoubtedly some of the music is, with familiar themes popping up throughout.  Although some of the characterisation may be shallow, this does not really detract from the overall impact of a show that made a huge impression when first released, and continues to do so with this 20th anniversary production.

Here is a cast with no weak links, and with some memorable performances which seem to grow and develop as the evening goes on. Billy Cullum (Mark) and Joshua Dever (Roger) work well together in the apartment that forms the focus of a lot of the show, both demonstrating fine rock voices. Philippa Stefani is also in good voice as a fitting drug-addicted exotic dancer Mimi, producing a haunting Another Day with Hunter.

There is strong support from Shanay Holmes as Joanne and Christina Modestou as Maureen, but surely the performance of the night comes from Layton Williams who is a delight as drag queen Angel. He delivers some delicately-placed vocals, and performs some very acrobatic choreography, with a performance that is touching, gentle and caring until the end.

Lee Proud’s choreography is lively, gritty and urban and fits the theme of the show well:  the cast delivers it with enthusiasm. Anna Fleischle’s design is fittingly based on multi-level scaffolding which enhances to overall effect nicely and allows the show to flow uninterrupted, well-complemented by Rick Fisher’s lighting

One or two sound problems and a very distractingly bright off-stage light will no doubt be attended to before further performances but unfortunately spoilt an otherwise very good show on opening night. Director Bruce Guthrie has included some nice touches, and in particular has made the tricky death scene into something quite moving. The show is not without its flaws – Jonathan Larson died the night before it opened, and it would otherwise most likely have been tightened up – but it remains a fitting and iconic emblem of the writer and his time.

Runs until 13 May 2017 | Image: Contributed

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Gritty and Poignant

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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