Billy Cullum (Mark) and Ross Hunter (Roger). Photo credit: Matt Crockett
On the surface, a contemporary musical about a group of young people struggling with poverty, AIDS, addiction and prejudice in New York doesn't sound particularly enticing, but with a powerful story, an incredible cast of characters and a super catchy rock score this loose retelling of Puccini's opera La Bohème is one of the very best musical theatre has to offer. And the 20th anniversary production, touring the UK after it finishes its run in London at the end of January, is an absolute must-see.
It's Christmas Eve in New York City when we meet flatmates Mark, a filmmaker, and Roger, a rock musician. Not paying rent for their apartment their former roommate Benny, who now owns the building, is threatening to kick them out unless they help him prevent a protest by Mark's loud ex Maureen in another part of the building. Mimi, who also lives in the building, as well as Collins and his love interest Angel, all get caught up in the protest.
As if a group of artists struggling to make ends meet wasn't hardship enough, half of the main characters are HIV positive, and Roger and Mimi both struggle with drug addition too. The characters' journey throughout the show is utterly heart-wrenching (there were many sniffles from audience members around me), but as Jonathan Larson wrote RENT at the start of the 90s, when AIDS was spreading like an epidemic among America's youth, it's understandable that it influenced his writing significantly. And although it has been 20 years since the first professional production of RENT, the book about the less privileged in bohemian NYC still feels incredibly current.
The atmosphere in the auditorium of the St James Theatre on opening night was electrifying with a full standing ovation during the finale, and rightfully so, because what an incredible revival this is. The interpretations of some of the main characters was quite different than I was used to, but it worked beautifully. Roger (Ross Hunter) was less "pretty boy front man" and more rough around the edges, which really brought out his tortured past and his reluctance in getting close to Mimi. Mark (Billy Cullum) was not as geeky or irritating as he so often is, making him a much more likeable and relatable narrator.
While Roger has always been my favourite character (and he still is), other stand-outs in this production included Ryan O'Gorman showing Collins' sensitive side, Lucie Jones' showstopping protest scene as Maureen, and Layton William's impressive performance near the start of the show when he first transformed into the far more extrovert version of Angel. And then there were the ensemble members, whose incredible solos had the audience captivated and applauding throughout. The entire cast was stonkingly good, mind, and I feel so privileged for having seen this crazy talented group of people bring the incredible characters to life.
The choreography by Lee Proud and costume design by Loren Elstein were all spot on to get that grungy rock feel across. However, besides the energetic cast and the fantastic book, the star of the show was the incredible music, also by Jonathan Larson. Each and every one of the songs is a stunner and this cast did them more than justice. Some of the most beautiful moments within RENT happened during the powerful One Song Glory, the sweet Light My Candle, the feisty Take Me Or Leave Me, the toe-tapping La Vie Boheme, and the spine-tingling Seasons of Love.
The 20th anniversary production of RENT is perhaps not the most obvious Christmas show but it's the one you need to see this year. The raw and honest story packs a powerful punch inside the intimate St James Theatre, and I will guarantee that you'll end up listening to the kick-ass music on repeat for days after. While, heart-breakingly, RENT was Jonathan Larson's last work as he died unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm the night before the show's opening in 1996, what a legacy to leave behind. After winning a slew of Tonys and Drama Desk Awards during its original run, and even the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, this show, and the latest revival, have proven RENT is definitely not a One Song Glory.