As I go to pick up my tickets the clock by the reception tells me that the expected finishing time for the performance is 10.15pm. It’s now almost 7.30pm. I’m an English student but I do the maths. That’s a two-and-a-half hour long performance and I don’t fare well sitting for long stints; I get pins and needles, I always end up fidgeting in my seat. It’s a testament to the utter magnetism of this production of RENT that, this time, I didn’t move an inch.
Opening night and there were a few technical issues with sound and microphones, but you don’t go to see this show to marvel at slick sound cues or a jazzy lighting design. Instead you go for the raw emotion of performances like Eleanor Shaw’s solo “Without You”, a solo almost too painful to watch in its affective delivery. It is in their poignancy and quiet profundity that these simple vocal moments are just as spectacular as the show’s big chorus numbers and equally big choreography.
This is the thing about director Georgia Figgis’ production of Rent; for a show that could easily lapse into being melodramatic and swamped in its own self-indulgent emotion, it is extremely well-balanced and well-acted. Moments of comedy and high energy (Alex Wickens’“Today 4 U” deserves a mention: how exactly does one dance, cartwheel and high kick whilst maintaining perfect pitch? And in heels?) are offset by stripped back solos such as Issac Calvin’s movingly delivered “One Song Glory”. The incredible stage presences of Kitty Murdoch and Annabel Mutale Reed, playing Maureen and Joanne respectively, are never overmatched, their duet “Take Me or Leave Me” being nothing short of electrifying.
It is a credit to the supporting cast that even against such strong, diverse characters, the ensemble shone; their excellent performances illuminated scattered moments throughout the play lifting the whole performance. Nathan Stazicker’ set was integral to such an interplay. Entrances and exits at various levels allowed supporting cast members to seamlessly enter, bolstering Christian Bevan’s standout “I’ll Cover You” before dissolving into the background and leaving behind a hushed stage and a haunting absence.
This high calibre of performance allowed for a sensitive, but still powerful treatment of poverty, sexuality and the HIV/AIDs epidemic of the 1990s. As someone who had no idea what the musical was about before seeing it, the care and effort taken to preserve the themes that lie at the heart of the play was evident. Ed Addison’s choreography was not only visually arresting, but it challenged the kind of artistic heteronormativity that it is easy for an audience to overlook when watching theatre: on stage same sex-couples danced with each other, typically “feminine” routines were performed by men and all with the skill of a professional production.
I thoroughly enjoyed my three hours at the Playhouse. And the time spent after that listening to the soundtrack, though beware: after experiencing the sheer feeling of this production, it just isn’t the same. Ultimately, RENT is a beautiful, moving piece of musical theatre that will have anyone and everyone mesmerised in their seats.