Review: RENT The Musical (St James Theatre, London)

Not many musicals manage to gather the loyal fanbase that has been afforded to RENT over its 20 year lifetime. That’s never been more obvious than during the current run at the St James Theatre, where a large portion of the audience seemed to be adorning ‘No Day But Today’ t-shirts, with ‘Moos’ at the ready. And it’s a testament to this new touring production from Theatre Clwyd that so many loyal fans have flocked to see it.

The last time we had RENT in the West End was back in 2007 when RENT Remixed rolled in, sporting a massively miscast Denise Van Outen and some unneeded changes to the soundtrack. So a more loyal rendition of the original production has been long overdue. Here in the hands of Bruce Guthrie, it’s difficult to imagine a production more in keeping with composer Jonathan Larson’s original vision – the stage covered with New York-style fire escapes and gritty brickwork, and the cast sporting some fittingly accurate 90s attire.

The production captures the East Village vibe perfectly, and that’s partly thanks to a talented cast who, for the most part, have the bohemian vibe needed for such a vibrant bunch of characters. Chief among those are Billy Cullum as filmmaker Mark, perfectly geeky and naive, and understudy Javar La’Trail Parker as Roger, who brought a new brooding and less rocky perspective to the character. Lucie Jones (of X Factor and now Eurovision fame) played Maureen, and used every opportunity to show off her vocal range, while bringing out the more humorous side of the role – her Take me or Leave Me with Shanay Holmes was a real stand-out moment. And finally Philippa Stefani as Mimi rounded off the cast with a rather lively Out Tonight and possibly one of the most convincing displays of stage crying I’ve ever seen.

I’ll admit to only being slightly disappointed by the role of Angel, ordinarily an emotional core for the musical and a fan favourite, but here coming across as more cabaret club drag queen than an individual expressing their true self. The role was played by an understudy during this showing, so I’d be intrigued to know if that’s a fault of the direction or the individual performance.

Despite the loyal fan base, the show isn’t perfect, and what this production did highlight was that the second act is far stronger than the first. While Larson’s music is strong throughout, the book doesn’t find its feet until the final third. That’s partly due to a real inconsistency in the first half, as it struggles to balance the more light-hearted numbers with the poignant ballads. With tight direction, that imbalance can be masked somewhat, but here the pacing struggles – only feeling consistent as the book brings together all the narratives and the characters.

Anna Fleischle’s design and the space in the St James are partly to blame for those pacing issues. While the musical interludes slow act one right down and break the flow, so do the quite clumsy set changes. I’m struggling to see that any of the changes were actually necessary for progressing the narrative, and only acted as a distraction. They also highlighted how ill-fitting the production was in the St James, as it has clearly been designed more with the intention of a traditional proscenium.

Verdict: ★★★★☆

A loyal revival of RENT has been long overdue, and it’s difficult to imagine a production that’s more loyal than this. It struggles with pacing at times, and is let down slightly by clumsy design, but the mostly top notch cast perfectly capture Jonathan Larson’s bohemian intentions. For RENTheads, there’s little chance of them being disappointed, and for RENT newbies, this is a cracking introduction to the cult musical.

RENT is going out on tour until May 2017, and tickets are available from the Rent website.

And the view…

Stalls, Row D, Seat 22. In such a small venue there’s always little chance of a truly awful view, and from these seats the view was understandably perfect. However, sound is a different matter, and here the mix was pretty awful with the music often drowning out the performers.

St James Theatre Row D, Seat 22
St James Theatre Row D, Seat 22

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