Writer: Jonathan Larson
Original concept and additional Lyrics: Billy Aronson
Director: Luke Sheppard
The characters in Jonathan Larson’s Rent struggle against hardship. They live in poverty and under the shadow of HIV/AIDS. Life imitated art when Luke Sheppard’s production at Hope Mill coincided with the onset of the Covid pandemic and had to be postponed. Now the production returns in combative mood making clear the company has no intention of surrendering to adversity.
Rent has a complex plot concerning relationships between three couples and the story takes place against a background of social problems like homelessness and government indifference to the AIDS pandemic. HIV-positive Roger (Tom Francis) and drug user/ erotic dancer Mimi (Maiya Quansah-Breed), political fixer Joanne (Jocasta Almgill) and pretentious performance artist Maureen (Millie O’Connell) – the latter a former girlfriend of aspiring filmmaker/ narrator Mark (Luke Bayer)- and IT lecturer Tom Collins (Dom Hartley-Harris) and drag artist Angel( Alex Thomas-Smith). Mimi is also in an on-again-off-again relationship with landlord Benny (Michael Ahomka-Lindsay in an assured professional stage debut). Resolving the congested storyline requires unsatisfactory contrivances- the landlord simply gains a conscience- but Rent is more about passion than plot.#
Director Luke Sheppard makes clear from the beginning this is an ensemble production. The cast sit around the edge of the stage forming a chorus when not performing. The principal players are seated to the side with the ensemble players facing the audience so the show-stopping opening to Act Two, the gentle Seasons of Love, allows the ensemble to really shine – especially Iona Fraser who contributes a stunning solo. The approach promotes the sense the cast are a team and their characters a family.
The subject matter is potentially depressing, and Sheppard does not hide from the squalid aspects of the story- a love ballad by Maiya Quansah-Breed is staged in a manner signifying the object of her affection is a bag of heroin. However, Sheppard keeps a dark gallows humour running through the show. The story takes place in the Festive season and the cast constantly remark how Christmas bells are ringing – somewhere else and that in their neighbourhood emotions are rented not owned. Luke Bayer has a world-weary attitude ruefully accepting it is just his luck his girlfriend would run off with another woman. The comedic highpoint is, however, Millie O’Connell whether performing an excruciatingly bad nightclub act or making a declaration of love bending over head between legs; she is hilarious.
The doomed relationship between Tom Francis and Maiya Quansah-Breed is more like a suicide pact than a love affair. The air of resignation generated by Francis is of someone who has lost all hope. While Quansah-Breed gives a slinky, seductive performance there is the impression the self-destructive Mimi knows she is living on borrowed time.
The strongest and most moving emotional relationship is, however, between Dom Hartley-Harris and Alex Thomas-Smith playing characters drawn together as both have an innate sense of decency. Thomas-Smith is so empathic in their drag queen persona their transformation into a frail figure in a hospital gown is shocking and harrowing. It is hardly surprising Hartley-Harris seems so upset as to be physically devastated.
The large cast and intimate stage space prompts imaginative choreography by Tom Jackson Greaves. The limited space for movement does not allow cathartic leaps and bounds so the dancers contort and twist their arms and upper bodies. Indeed, some of the dances, including the Act One closing number, take place with the dancers seated and desperately trying to rise. It adds to the sense of urgency as if the dancers are straining against confinement.
The return of the stunning production of Rent to Hope Mill makes it possible to believe some quality theatre might be forthcoming after a long absence.
Runs until 19th September 2021