It’s a story about ‘living in America, at the end of the millennium’, based on Puccini’s tragic opera La Boheme. Instead of tuberculosis and Parisian garrets, Rent centres around an artists’ squat in New York’s Alphabet City during the AIDs crisis.
When writer Jonathan Larson died utterly unexpectedly of an aneurysm at the age of 35, after the final Rent dress rehearsal, his musical about living for the moment became both mythic and intensely pertinent. The show was a sensation when it premiered on Broadway in 1996, playing for an unprecedented 12 years and winning four Tonys, six Drama Desk Awards and a Pulitzer. And the revolutionary rock pop form expanded the musical theatre landscape (Lin-Manuel Miranda cites Rent as one of his leading inspirations for hip-hop hit Hamilton).
Thanks to a remarkably talented, energetic cast, this revival captures all the spirit of the original. The classic songs are events in their own rights - and on more than one occasion the applause is show-stopping.
The intimacy of the St James auditorium evokes cramped living conditions (yet doesn’t impede acrobatics or large-scale chorus choreography). The colourful cast of musicians, drag queens, drama queens, artists and junkies invite us into a bohemian life that celebrates ‘yoga’, ‘Sondheim’ ‘Sontag’ ‘Hand crafted beer made in local breweries’, ‘dildos’ and pretty much ‘anything taboo’.
When dolled-up Drag Queen Angel (Layton Williams) jumps into the splits and backflips from a height while singing ‘Today 4 U’, then when stripper/smack addict Mimi howls the high notes of ‘Out Tonight’ while writhing and hanging from scaffolding it’s pure thrilling entertainment.
The irreverence matches the humour in Larson’s lyrics; 'I didn't recognise you without the handcuffs' mid meet-cute lovesong is just one of our laugh-out-loud favourites. But, as per La Boheme, there’s a tragic inevitability, and the spectres of AIDs and poverty hang heavy. ‘Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care?’ sings one unnamed man in an HIV support group.
The second half negotiates the sobering reality of AIDs and addiction with deftness and without stifling the life-force of creativity and love. It's moving even for those who know the show inside out.
|Rent, St James Theatre review
|The Other Palace Theatre, 12 Palace Street, London, SW1E 5JA | MAP
08 Dec 16 – 28 Jan 17, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|£15 - £64.50
|Click here to book via St James Theatre