I wonder if Eurovision might have gone rather differently last Saturday night if, instead of ‘Never Give Up On You’, Lucie Jones had gone on stage in fishnets, black bra and trash-chic make-up and given her blistering performance of Jonathan Larson’s ‘Over the Moon’, finishing by rolling on the floor sucking milk from her microphone and inciting the audience to moo with her. Hell, Italy had a gorilla.
Jones’s extracurricular activities between the Coventry and Nottingham legs of Bruce Guthrie’s current tour of Rent may have contributed somewhat to the rapturous reception her Maureen receives when she finally takes the stage towards the end of Act One, but Jones knocks it out of the park on her own terms with a blistering, funny performance, a standout in a confident, if occasionally misdirected, production.
Somewhat overshadowed (understandably) by the long-awaited revival of Angels in America in London, this 20th-anniversary revival of another of the major 1990s AIDS shows is a celebration rather than an updating. Ignoring the ‘remixes’ of other revivals, Guthrie’s take sticks firmly to the period, libretto and arrangements of the original Broadway production (the only really significant change a quiet piano version of the climactic instrumental to ‘Your Eyes’, more sympathetic to Mimi’s momentary death).
It’s something of a time capsule (paradoxically, perhaps, for a show whose motto is ‘No day but today’), right down to the fashions and enormous cellphones, situating the American AIDS crisis in its historical moment, while offering an uncomfortable reminder – particularly in its chorus of homeless people and the precariousness of those exploited by landlords – of how little has changed.
This isn’t a heavily politicised production though, and the overall tone of the anniversary is celebratory. The first night in Nottingham was beset by technical difficulties, including the complete restart of ‘What You Own’, but a rapturous audience simply roared even louder for the company.
The star of the show is Lee Proud’s choreography, showcasing a fantastic cast: the beautifully poised ‘Tango Maureen’, the genuinely jaw-dropping acrobatics of Layton Williams’s Angel during ‘Today 4 U’, the spinning stoop that Philippa Stefani’s Mimi gyrated atop for ‘Out Tonight’, and the beautifully staged chorus numbers (‘La Vie Boheme’, ‘Christmas Bells’) that show off the skills of the underused ensemble. The production struggles during duets, though; from ‘I’ll Cover You’ to ‘Take Me or Leave Me’, ‘I Should Tell You’ to ‘What You Own’, the cast repeatedly fall back into an un-dynamic face-each-other/face-the-audience pattern, and it’s a relief when the bigger numbers show more invention.
The show swings through pathos and triumph, group hugs and brief fights, but – with the exception of Angel’s death, mourned in the achingly sad reprise of ‘I’ll Cover You’ by Ryan O’Gorman as Collins – the stakes are surprisingly low. Shorn of its initial potency, it’s hard not to notice that the plot is paper-thin, the moments of tension almost immediately undone (Roger’s flight to Santa Fe is resolved in a song-and-a-half), and Mimi’s sudden resurrection at the end is entirely unearned, dramatically; a point inadvertently made by the rest of the cast basically dropping her to go and sing the triumphant climax downstage before she’s managed to stagger to her feet. This production is a tribute to the original, structural flaws and all, and it places its faith in the songs, delivered stunningly.
Surprisingly, my main complaint here is that the leads are vocally too good, lacking the rasp and grit that characterised the show it pays tribute to, and which celebrated the diversity of its influences and performances. The main role that suffers here is Roger; Ross Hunter’s voice is sweet, doing beautiful work with the ballads but struggling at the lower end with the anger and bitterness of his more confrontational songs, and his voice merges rather than contrasts with that of Mark (Billy Cullum). The vocal homogeneity among the cast isn’t helped by an excellent but very bass-heavy band that renders too many of the lyrics unintelligible; no problem for the Rentheads, less good for those trying to follow the plot for the first time. The costume design, while authentically ‘90s, is also too homogeneous, and several of the leads (particularly Collins and Maureen) keep disappearing among the extras.
Such quibbles don’t do justice, however, to an energetic, beautifully danced and sung tribute to a beloved show. When this show reaches its heights – the chorus of ‘Will I?’, the revolution of the first act climax, and the back-slapping camaraderie of ‘Seasons of Love’ – it’s still transcendent.
Rent is on tour until May 27th. For more details, click here.