RENT at the Greenwich Theatre | Musical reviewCultureTheatre
Performing to a packed house on Friday night, the cast of Rent – playing at the Greenwich Theatre – gave an energetic and musically outstanding performance in one of the first shows of their short-lived one-and-a-half week run.
Rent – the vastly popular musical centred around a group of AIDS-riddled, desperate, but wildly fun-loving and optimistic down-and-out bohemians living the ‘artistic’ life in New York – returns to a British stage for the first time in four years. Directed by Paul Taylor-Mills, this production goes back to the original versions of Rent, featuring appropriately colourful posters and a cast that look scarily similar to the 2005 film’s stars – especially Stephanie Fearon (who plays Mimi), Benjamin Stratton (Mark) and Edward Handoll (Roger).
Starting with a dynamic opening number, the show continues at a fast, exciting pace, aided by a colourful lighting design and a focus on choral numbers in which the entirety of the cast use their fiercely-trained voices to create an impressive, belly-vibrating wall of sound. Although the effect was impressive to the point of hair-raising at times, in other points of the play it would have been nice to have the songs sung by a few main characters instead. Seasons of Love, for example, would have worked better using just the main characters to highlight the meaning of the song, while Angel’s death in the reprise of I’ll Cover You was also sort of swallowed up by too much going on on-stage.
The Greenwich Theatre – although having a good audience capacity – emanates nothing of the grandeur and stage magic that West-End musical venues seem to exude with their decorated proscenium arches and separation of the audience from the action by the orchestra pit, placing the spectators quite close to the stage and putting the actors under a microscope – which should be a good thing, right? Unfortunately, the proximity of the audience to the stage, coupled with the over-the-top acting style of musical theatre and the almost unnecessarily amplified singers made the evening feel like a trip to see a Drama school showcase as opposed to a professional production – complete with the clichés of smoke on-stage and busy road noises playing over the sound system for the pre-set. The effect was, perhaps, amplified by a poor set in which a smorgasbord of stage equipment (ladders, rostra, fly boxes and scaffolding), coupled with some window frames and a vast and completely pointless American flag painted on the floor tried to give the impression of the abandoned flat in which the friends are squatting. But it just didn’t feel like it was anywhere other than right there, in a theatre, in East London.
What really raised the show to a professional standard were the performances of the cast who, almost without exception, did a fantastic job. Mark and Roger (who had the best male voice of the entire cast) had great chemistry and were both very charismatic in their roles, the latter also giving a terrific performance with Stephanie Fearon in the role of Mimi. Gary Wood (playing Angel) also gave a brilliantly funny, bouncy and touching performance, his song Today 4 U rousing the audience to stamps and cheers. Undoubtedly, however, the performance of the night must be a toss-up between Maureen’s Over The Moon – in which an uncontainably sexual and completely mad Zoe Birkett brought the house down – and Maeve Byrne’s lead vocals in Seasons of Love, her stunning voice providing a spell-binding few minutes, followed by rapturous applause.
In conclusion, Rent is a show worth watching for any musical theatre lover in London. Faithful to the original, with an immensely talented cast, it provides a great opportunity to see the ‘Best musical in years, if not decades’ (Variety) live on-stage before the run ends and the show drops from the London scene again – but this time, who knows for how long?
Orestes Daniel Kouzof
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