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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Rent
Duke of York's Theatre Winter 2007-2008

Jonathan Larson's updating of La Boheme hit just the right tone, both musically and thematically, to speak to young people of the 1990s with much the same excitement and immediacy as Hair had for their parents a quarter-century earlier. But although the original is still running on Broadway, British revivals have sometimes lost that edge, the musical becoming as much a period piece as Hair would be if revived.

This new production, labelled 'Rent Remixed,' and featuring some reordering of songs, new lyrics and new arrangements, does have an audience-pleasing energy. But, perhaps inevitably, it has lost a lot of the original's sense of reality and community. How much that bothers you will very likely depend on your age.

Before I go any further, I have to point out that this show was not written for boring old codgers like me or some of the newspaper critics who really hated it. My almost-14-year-old companion loved it, and most of the 20-somethings in the audience clearly had a good time. So take the criticisms that follow as things one notices if one isn't caught up in the show but probably wouldn't be bothered by if it worked for you.

(A reminder: as in the opera that inspired it, a community of starving artists take in a sick girl, who has a romance with one of them. The setting is New York's boho slum Lower East Side, the characters include an aspiring filmmaker, a musician and a performance artist, and the opera's tuberculosis has been replaced by heroin and HIV.)

The first thing that goes wrong with this revival is Mark Bailey's design, with both set and costumes far too stylish and expensive-looking to be believable as the milieu of poverty. William Baker's direction and Ashley Wallen's choreography are either over-busy or cluttered, with so much extraneous bustling about that you can't focus, so that even the best numbers, like La Vie Boheme, don't register as fully as they should.

And the performances, for all their energy and expertise, lack the underlying sense of reality. There is no getting away from the awareness that these are all nice middle class British lads and lasses playing at being bohemians, drug addicts and Aids victims.

And so some of the basic character and plot elements don't fully work. I never really felt the romance of Leon Lopez' Collins and Jay Webb's Angel, or Angel's benevolent and loving influence on the others.

Oliver Thornton rather belatedly catches the ambiguous position of the filmmaker Mark, always watching through his lens instead of living, and Luke Evans conveys Roger's conflicted feelings for Mimi, but I didn't believe for a minute that Siobhan Donaghy's Mimi was either dying or addicted.

Denise Van Outen does what amounts to a guest star turn as the performance artist Maureen, and it doesn't help that her one big number is the weakest in the show, though she and Francesca Jackson do later generate some steam in their duet Take Me Or Leave Me.

The other good songs, Today 4 U, Tango Maureen, La Vie Boheme, Seasons Of Love, score best when done simply, without too much directorial or musical embellishment.

In every show that gets revived, be it Shakespeare or a musical comedy, there is one scene or moment that becomes a touchstone - will they do it as well here as they did in the original? For me the moment in Rent comes when a scene about something else is interrupted by someone's pocket alarm going off, and half the characters pause to take their Aids medication. It was chilling a dozen years ago, but goes by almost unnoticed here.

And it's that edge, of reality underlying or poking through the pretty songs and dances, that I miss.

 

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Rent - Duke of York's 2007