views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Rent
Tabard Theatre
8th August 2013

★★★★☆

With advances in medicine meaning HIV and AIDS are thankfully no longer the death sentence they once represented, Rent does in places feel very much of its time, penned not long after the sudden awareness that the 80s brought about these conditions. But the book also captures the hardship of inner-city creative types struggling to make a living, and that remains a problem. The storyline is still relatable.

As a rock musical, Rent divides public opinion - perhaps not to the extremes of jukebox entries We Will Rock You or Mamma Mia! but it's still an acquired taste. You're either a fan of the genre or you're not - which begs the question, why do we need another production of Rent, especially since most saw the passable if not sparkling 2005 film version or Puccini's La Boheme? And why at the Tabard Theatre, a tiny theatre pub?

On the face of it, it's a hard one to justify, there's little original about this staging from director and choreographer Adam Scown. The slightly rundown, industrial feel to the set and the energetic choreography are both very faithful to previous versions. There's a nice touch with set designer Kessiah Arthur's slimline Christmas tree made out of empty bottles, chains, tyres and other detritus - it just about fits onto the stage and adds a bleak, seasonal accent.

Casting director Ben Newsome pulls out a few trump cards with Jodie Steele as Mimi and William Whelton as Angel. The entire ensemble are strong, and there's no denying they're all very talented, but Steel and Whelton elevate the piece. They seem born to play their parts, injecting some oomph into the production. I'm glad to have seen Rent purely for the opportunity to see these two performers in action.

Steele exudes a potent sexuality - when she sings Out Tonight, you have to wonder why someone like Kerry Ellis ever played the role in the West End, it belongs to Steele. Not only do you need to have an excellent voice to play Mimi, you also need the looks, the charisma, the hidden vulnerability - and Steele ticks all these boxes, delivering a magnetic performance. And Whelton shines in Today 4 U and I'll Cover You, creating both an energetic, fun sequence and a more tender moment. Whether dressed in masculine clothes or camping it up drag queen style, belting out numbers which confidently strutting in impossible high platform boots, Whelton is a joy to watch. He also comes across as inherently likeable, which is crucial for the emotional pull of Rent to work, his role is key to the show's success.

Musical director James Doughty as well as playing keyboard skilfully, leads the rest of the talented orchestra - Gareth Liekse, Brian McCann and Robert Norman on guitar, and Dom Cardell on drums. There is nothing to fault about their playing, but with their protective earwear, they presumably have little idea of how loud the sound is, particularly when trapped in such a small space. At one point, a glass was shattered on the front row - swiftly and discretely dealt with - but it was remarkable there were no other mishaps.

The beautiful duetting from Mimi and Roger (John Sandberg) was harmed slightly, when they moved too close and there was a brief touch of feedback, but it didn't happen more than a few times, and it was worth preserving with.

Despite a few technical issues, this is a high-quality production. Those who don't favour the genre are unlikely to be won over - no, they'll still stick with La Bohème - but any fans of Rent will adore this.

Rent ran from 7th to 31st August 2013 at the Tabard Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Turnham Green (District, Piccadilly)



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