Review: Rent, Hope Mill Theatre

Published in The Stage November 5, 2020

“No day but today, no day but today.” The last lines of Jonathan Larson’s 1993 musical Rent have surely never felt quite so applicable: opening night here is also closing night.

This gives this production – already charged by events, with a cast that’s ’bubbled’, living together for the duration of rehearsals – extra emotional wallop, shinning through the cast’s eyes and in every burst of applause after every number.

Luke Sheppard’s production had an online life planned too, and a recording will be streamed from November 27 – December 20, although much of what makes this evening so enjoyable is being back in Hope Mill’s intimate space, so close to a stage bursting with music, singing, dancing, and sheer exuberance. For a musical about the AIDS crisis among down-and-out artists in New York, Rent makes for a remarkably witty and uplifting show – watching this production live really brings home what we’ve been missing these past months.

An enormous hit when it premiered, Larson’s musical is nonetheless a scrappy, baggy thing, with an episodic plot of tangled friendships and relationships loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème. Sheppard’s production doesn’t always find a clear path through, but rather embraces its chaotic energy, and Larson’s quirky, quick-fire rhyming lyrics still feel fresh. Tom Jackson Greaves’s choreography is appropriately both spiky and stompy, and the raucous rock score sounds terrific.

Less successful is the characterisation: this is a talented selection of musical theatre artists, no doubt about that, but you don’t always believe in the parts they play. Alex Thomas-Smith sings beautifully, but is underpowered as Angel, a drag queen who ought to rule the stage (and poorly served by a sugary costume, with tutu ruffles that more closely evoke those 1990s cupcake dolls than the era’s East Village).

Six the Musical alumni Millie O’Connell and Maiya Quansah-Breed sing and move fantastically – but seem too perky and cutesy to inhabit Mimi, a homeless junkie, and Maureen, an experimental performance artist. They’re more pearl than grit – you hear stage school, not the mean streets, and O’Connell’s Maureen is about as avant garde as a member of Little Mix. This might seem a petty point, but Larson’s characters are themselves so concerned with authenticity, that feeling fake is a problem.

There’s more convincing work in the lively, often funny chorus, and Dom Hartley-Harris as Collins delivers a gorgeous, haunted number following Angel’s death from AIDS. Tom Francis makes a moody, memorable debut as the wounded singer Roger, while Blake Patrick Anderson – so eye-catching in Be More Chill earlier this year – stands out again here with a winning performance as wannabe film-maker Mark.

In style, this production may feel like it holds its historical period in quotation marks, but what carries the show is its whole-heartedness – radiating through every spirited performance, and out into the audience.

Where next?