Drama SchoolMusicalNorth WestReview

RENT – Paul McCartney Auditorium, Liverpool

Book / Music / Lyrics: Jonathan Larson
Director: Jake Norton
Reviewer: John Roberts


It’s hard not to applaud the ambitious young producers Claire Eggison, Daniel Jackson, Liam McMullan, and Fay Parkinson who make up new company Peak Productions. The company has been formed by music, theatre and entertainment management students while still studying at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. Even though this production of RENT lacks the finesse and polish that one would hope for, it shows a real promise for this fledgling company.

Jonathan Larson’s powerful musical was instrumental in changing the face of modern musical theatre; the lyrics and subject matter are profound and powerful. The emotion that is pumped through his soaring rock melodies and lyrics enthuse the production, with an energy that other productions find hard to emulate. It’s a shame that Larson himself never got to see the opening of his own musical that has made him a household name – dying the night before its workshop opening.

It’s Christmas Eve, 1989 – a group of bohemian artists are struggling to pay the rent, pressure is mounting on them to leave the building they have come to make their home and, as the group begins to make life-changing decisions, the constant shadow of the AIDS epidemic hangs notoriously over their heads… Little do they know how much 525,600 small minutes could mean to them and the relationships they hold.

What is instantly noticeable from the off with this production, directed by Jake Norton, is that so much of its staging has been knowingly taken from the original production. The stage design (Dylan Howells) of multi-levelled scaffolding on an open stage with TV screens littered around the stage is almost lifted piece by piece from the original staging and the comparisons don’t end there. Little creativity and thought have been given to the character design – the decisions here are lazy, to say the least.Why direct a production of a show and not put your own stamp on proceedings? Instead Norton and his team take the easy route and give us more of the same derivative ideas.

But what of the performances? Almost all of the cast come from various years at LIPA and attack the material full-tilt, but with that attack, plenty of subtly is lost. Norton directs this heavily white-washed production (never has NYC been whiter than Christmas) and at times over-sexualises its content and forgets that the show’s heart is about relationship, not gratification. Likewise, it’s a shame that Musical Director Callum Clarke, who shone through LIPA’s recent production of Witches of Eastwick, forgets the colour and shade within Larson’s material, allowing his cast to riff their way through the songs (If Larson wanted that, he would have written them in) and pushes his small and scattered on-stage band to pump out the music at an ear blistering level, which really impacts the shows softer more quieter moments – which may also account for many flat harmonies and note missing in larger ensemble numbers… but, believe it or not, that isn’t the show’s major fault.

That lies in the director Norton not being able to bring the truth out of the characters on stage, for a show that is about love, loss and grief, it feels on far too many occasions that the cast just can’t emotionally connect with the material – that’s not true for everyone on stage, though. Phil Teles Amaro steals the show as videographer Mark. He has an understated performance style that quietly conveys the troubles of the character. It’s also interesting to note he is one of the only company members not studying at LIPA. Lauren Waine brings out as much of the comedy in the role of Maureen, while Rachelle Diedricks is a convincing Joanne, but the most emotionally powerful connection to the material comes from the deep and delicious tones of Jordan Alexander as Collins whose rendition of the reprise of I’ll Cover You really brings tears to your eyes.

RENT is fast becoming the musical theatre version of Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis –every new company wants to produce it, but sadly brings nothing new to the production in terms of design, direction and character choices and that’s exactly what has happened with this production by Peak Productions.

Runs until 13 February 2016 | Image: Contributed

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The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. 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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  1. I saw LIPA’s production of Rent last night and I was totally blown away. In my view this was a superb production, the message of the piece came through loud and clear to anyone with an open mind. What was particularly different about production, from others I’ve seen, was having the ensemble on stage throughout, which firmly set it in context. I have to wonder if the production I saw was the same as the one this reviewer saw.

  2. Dear Mr Roberts,

    I am Jake Norton, the director of ‘Rent’ which performed at LIPA last week. I am not in the habit of responding to reviews, I have enough faith in the work I do and also understand the beauty of art is our subjective perception of it. However, I feel an injustice is done if I do not respond in this case. My student cast read your review before going on stage on the last day of performances. Despite the show also receiving two rave reviews they were rocked by your thoughts, they are at a tender time in their development and have not yet grown the ‘rhino skin’ needed to exist as a professional. I shall answer some of your points:

    Mr Roberts, you say ‘much of the staging is knowingly taken from the original production’. As a director approaching a show that is known and successful I am very careful to realise what is already working about an original staging and if (in line with my conceptual view) I can find a better way to tell the story then I make changes. If I find no better way to tell the story in a scene then I keep my ego out of the equation and I will use a staging that has worked before but leaving room for discoveries in rehearsal. Also note that this is a musical score and therefore as a director you are restricted in many changes you would like to make as you cannot rewrite the music to allow for your ‘vision’. Having the luxury to experiment with a scene requires time; a standard musical theatre rehearsal schedule would be approximately 140 hours before tech week- I had less than 100 hours as all my actors were volunteers and I cannot interfere with any classes so we rehearsed evenings and weekends. Having said this, your statement is still misinformed, here are some examples of changes I implemented to remind you:

    • My ensemble was onstage throughout, reacting to everything and performing all scene changes in character. We conducted research on East Village 1988, and this was to show the living, breathing and dying context in which these characters emerge from.
    • I added a riot sequence at the end of the first act which ended with cast exploding out into the audience.
    • I completely changed the ending of the piece having the character ‘Mimi’ die rather than come back to life, I had ‘Angel’ come back as an angel to take her to the afterlife.
    • I frequently chose to bring the performance into the audience, for example having ‘Maureen’ perform her song amongst the audience.
    • I cut a whole song and changed many lines which were originally sung to spoken to aid the narrative.
    • I converted Contact into a piece of ensemble physical theatre
    • I changed One song glory into a fantasy rock concert, and Out Tonight into a strip club scene- both these choices were about contextualising and furthering our understanding of Mimi and Rodger

    You say the stage design ‘is almost lifted piece by piece from the original staging’. Realise Mr. Roberts that for this student production my student set designer (who was a volunteer and not assessed) was working to a budget of £200. I asked for an industrial set in which levels were needed as the mercurial narrative style demands it; if it bears similarities to the original that it is because that is what the narrative demands, and without a huge budget there is little deviation that would not inhibit the production. However, there were some changes including multiple TV screens, a fireman’s pole for pole-dancing, a catwalk that ventured into the audience, and the inclusion of the band throughout the set as further ensemble members are just a few examples.

    You clearly disliked my production – and that is fine. However, do not presume to call me a ‘lazy’ director when your review is so misinformed. Lazy I am certainly not. Also understand, Mr Roberts that this a wholly student production and created despite many constraints, and despite these constraints my students received standing ovations for each performance.

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