Touring – reviews at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
There is plenty of energy and spectacle in Bruce Guthrie’s 20th anniversary production of Rent, but it is too careful and just too clean to fully persuade.
Jonathan Larson’s celebrated musical, dealing with the lives and loves of a collection of bohemian New York artists living under the shadow of AIDS, famously take some of its inspiration from Puccini. Undoubtedly much of the excitement of the original remains, but at two decades’ remove it is beginning to seem just a little overwrought and verging on melodrama. While this production will surely delight the show’s legion of fans, it seems unlikely to win many new admirers with a reverential, almost antiseptic approach that threatens to turn it into a curiosity.
Understandably, little has been changed in the show since the first performance followed immediately after Larson’s tragically early death, but there must now be a temptation to perform some minor surgery on a show that is (whisper it) beginning to show its age.
The concerns of the piece may still be relevant, but the setting – where music is provided by boomboxes, film is shot weeks in advance of appearing courtesy of an analogue projector, and mobiles are barely known – is just starting to look quaint.
The music also presents a problem. No longer thrillingly contemporary, those epic 90s keyboard washes and portentous power ballads are thoroughly dated, and – Seasons of Love aside – do not quite make the first rank of Songs From The Shows.
This could easily be remedied by excitement, power and volume, but here it is all polite, lacking in rough edges and frankly too quietly timid, when this is definitely one musical that can benefit from some scuzziness.
Billy Cullum (centre) with the cast of RENT. Photo Matt Crockett
Much of the singing, moreover, is affected by the post-Carey tropes beloved of TV talent shows – no melisma left unattempted, no opportunity to voyage off from the melody and into the ether, left behind. Some may find it technically praiseworthy, but these characters could benefit from more raw emotion and less control.
The only actual X Factor graduate on display is Lucie Jones (soon also to appear in Eurovision) as Maureen, but she is far from the worst offender. Indeed, her duet with the excellent Shanay Holmes (Joanne) on Take Me Or Leave Me is the evening’s musical highlight, providing believable emotion to go with the vocal fireworks.
This lack of passion elsewhere means that the relationships lack a little something. Ross Hunter’s would-be rock star Roger is grungy enough, but Philippa Stefani’s dancer Mimi, full of poise and pizzazz, never seems suitably desperate. Drag queen Angel (an impressive Jordan Laviniere, standing in for Layton Williams) is an extremely impressive performer, but his duets with Ryan O’Gorman’s more staid Collins, which are usually the piece’s emotional anchor, just do not ring true.
One peculiarity that has become more apparent with the passing of time as that, in a strangely episodic, almost soapy plot, the apparent central character of Mark does not really do much; Billy Cullum does, however, provide an engagingly anguished presence. Yuppie sometime-bad guy Benjamin Coffin III seems as peculiar a character as ever, but Javar La’Trail Parker invests him with a surprising degree of humanity. He certainly seems much too centred to follow the career path of another notorious 90s New York property developer.
Where the production does score highly is in the chorus numbers. Lee Proud’s choreography makes excellent use of Anna Fleischle’s imposing, versatile scaffolding set, and the ensemble dancing and singing provide a feeling of community and hope that is missing elsewhere. As a revival, this is a wholly serviceable vehicle, but there is a definite suspicion that next time round a re-imagining may be required.
Running time 2 hours 40 minutes including one interval
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT
Tuesday 14 – Saturday 18 February 2017
Evenings at 7.30 pm, Matinee Sat at 2.30 pm
Tickets and details at: http://www.edtheatres.com/rent
Production website: www.rentonstage.co.uk
On facebook: RENTonstage
RENT on Twitter: @RENTonstage
RENT on tour 2017:
14 – 18 Feb
0131 529 6000
28 Feb – 4 March
0844 871 3017
0844 871 7645
28 March – 1 April
0116 242 3595
3 – 8 April
Wales Millennium Centre
029 2063 6464
1 – 6 May 2017
01202 280 000
9 – 13 May
024 7655 3055
16 – 20 May
0115 941 9419
23 – 27 May