By Matias Sifontes
Rent thrilled audiences on its opening on Thursday 18th of November. The big ensemble production from the Musical Theatre Society was directed by Andie Curno and supported by Leeds’ own Backstage Society.
Pictures by Abby Swain. Courtesy of LUU Musical Theatre Society.
The opening night had the atmosphere that can only be provoked by a sold-out Riley Smith Theatre; different layers of clothes start coming off, tins are flying, the crowd’s excited and craving to be entertained.
Let me put it simply, Rent Fucks. It’s one of those musicals you want to see if you get the chance. This adaptation is fun, crushing, and sex-posi. The singing goes hard and the dancing is bananas. Do you need any more reasons to go and watch? Sure, let me spell it out for ya’.
The production is an adaptation of the rock-musical by the late Jonathan Larson. It follows a group of impoverished creatives struggling to survive in New York’s East Village during the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Audiences should be wary; topics covered can be triggering, including self-harm, suicide, drug addiction, and scenes of sexual nature. Yet, those familiar with the play would know, these are topics explored with great care and respect. In fact, what may be most surprising is how easily this cast can make you laugh after landing utterly devastating blows.
The story follows a number of characters: Mark and Roger, played by Toby Bowen and Jack Foster, are two flatmates struggling to stay warm during Christmas eve and make a living as artists. Bowen is charismatic through-out, and his perspective helps the audience navigate the difficult situations faced by his inner group through a more comedic outlook.
Meanwhile, Foster’s Robert is struggling after having recently experienced the death of his girlfriend by suicide after finding out they had both contracted HIV. His presence is amplified in his interactions with Cass Palmer-Stirling’s Mimi, his drug-addict neighbour who is also HIV positive. These actors find strength in their joint numbers, Light My Candle is playful and sweet. However, they both get their times to shine in single numbers’. Mimi’s Out Tonight is a lesson in seductive presence and women’s sexual empowerment where Mimi attempts to seduce Roger in his apartment.
Collins and Angel, Ajay Sahota and Cameron Griffith were stellar on this production. Their intimate moments were among the most memorable on the night. Sahota holds his own in the stage with grace and is the perfect pairing to Griffith’s Angel in navigating the complex themes of queer love in the middle of the AIDS crisis. There are few words to describe Griffith’s performance besides pipes, pipes, pipes! Angel’s numbers are the strongest individual performances on the musical and the range displayed by Griffith is captivating. It takes certain talent to sing about killing a pet that charmingly.
The night didn’t go without hiccups. A microphone failure during the first act meant that actors had to soldier through cutting audio. Nevertheless, the performers really did soldier through and bent acoustical physics to their own will. Anna Duffel deserves a lot of recognition, her mic problems persisted through the second act but her performance, vocal range and presence was not to be defeated (rouge Michael Jordan, don’t blame me).
Rent’s cast shines as a whole through the exceptional level of cohesion displayed by this crew. Nevertheless, the ensemble completely stole the show on the evening, I mean take a fucking bow. Erin Latham, Dana Clementine, Sean Lomas, Lily Payton, Matteo Ferrari, Victoria Norman, Erwan Fayolle, Kam Paul, Sophie Tolson, Charlotte Hunter, and Tamara Walburn wore all of the hats on the night: moms, rough sleepers, police (ew), baggie suppliers, you name it. Their performance in the big ensemble pieces, such as La Vie Bohème, provided the grandeur that the three tinnies of madri in me were asking for. This ensemble can dance, like on some step up 2 rain-dance-sequence level (for the less cultured readers, I recommend a little google, it’s worth it). I must assume it is easier to choreograph large musical numbers with the help of such a talented group.
Rent is an important study into topics that remain as prescient now as they were when Larson initially wrote the musical. It remains fun, informative and entertaining whilst giving life to very important topics.