Rent at Hackney EmpireCultureTheatre
20 years ago, Rent was launched in New York, in a downtown off-Broadway venue. The seven-year labour of love by Jonathan Larson, this controversial musical updates Puccini’s opera La Boheme to chart the struggles of a community of young artists in 90s New York. Over two decades, Rent has won even the hearts of self-proclaimed musical theatrephobes, with its hilarious dialogue, dark overtones and gentle satire of the artistic temperament.
Rent follows turn-of-the-millenium changes within New York’s underbelly culture. The characters gather to attempt to prevent a commercial project that threatens to take over East Village’s Alphabet City and uproot the vagrant artists who are camping there. Daniel Wood, who directs this 20th anniversary tour, bravely takes on the themes of creative persecution, drug addiction, poverty and, foremost, the death sentence that AIDS places on a tragically large number of the characters.
The serious theme of AIDS-related death would be misplaced if the production was performed with anything less than dignity, passion and expert skill. Indeed, there are some minor pitfalls in the casting – Kerry Ellis is a little too angel-faced for the smack-addicted Mimi (despite her impressive vocals and debauched dancing), while Rory Taylor seems too effeminate and nonchalant as grieving musician Roger; there is a lack of emotional expression on his part. But other performers are astounding. If any element of this camp, kitch display can be labelled “cool”, Leon Lopez, as HIV positive philosophy professor Tom Collins, is it. He’s a smooth mover, a spectacular vocalist, and wonderfully expressive – an essential trait in his role, as he nurses his drag-artist lover Angel through the last stages of her AIDS struggle. His rendition of I’ll Cover You is powerful, and many audience members audibly weep at its reprise. Tom Prottey-Jones, as a member of the AIDS support network that Collins and Angel attend, hits the high notes and gets pulses racing. Nikki Davis Jones is spectacular as Maureen, the hyperactive performance artist.
Last night’s premiere may have had a celebrity cast, a large budget and a respected venue to its name, but it bears true to the fringe feel of the original Rent in its relentless cabaret drama, passionate song and reverberating energy. Despite or perhaps because of the issues it embraces, watching this show is a celebratory experience. The ethnically, sexually and culturally diverse love relationships and friendships within Rent are a heart-warming indication that devotion can bloom among opposites and amid the trials of disease and poverty. Almost all of the cast launch physically and emotionally into the message of the piece, which is one of optimism and living in the moment despite the fragility of life. By the end of this raunchy, fast performance, even the most discerning rent-heads in the crowd are up, dancing and doing just this.
Rent is on at Hackney Empire until 1st February 2014 before going on tour, for further information or to book visit here.