There are few musicals more cherished than Rent (at the St James Theatre until 28 January) and it is easy to see why. As well as having memorable songs (an increasing rarity these days) and characters we can connect to, this is a show that unashamedly wears its heart on its both sleeves.
Celebrating twenty years of making people appreciate their lives just a little bit more, this is a laugh-through-the-tears look at an AIDS-afflicted boho generation living in 1990s New York. The musical’s origins are mired in tragedy: as well as riffing off the ultimate opera weepie La Boheme, creator Jonathon Larson died aged 36 on the morning of Rent’s first preview performance off-Broadway and was posthumously given a raft of prizes including that year’s Pulitzer Award.
Sexuality and mortality intertwine in this gripping and grim drama. Wannabe videographer Mark Cohen (Billy Cullum) lives in a squat with musician Roger (Ross Hunter). Both are unlucky in love – Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen (Lucie Jones) has dumped him for a woman and Roger’s took her own life after informing him they were both HIV-positive. Their friend Tom (Ryan O’Gorman) meets Angel (Layton Williams), another AIDS sufferer and begins a relationship. Meanwhile, Roger falls in love with upstairs neighbour Mimi (Phillipa Stefani).
Just as a period piece, this is a fascinating vision. It portrays a band of youth looking and acting very differently to today’s twenty-somethings; there are no mobile phones, no Youtube and not much in the way of fashion sense; those of a sensitive disposition should be warned that gaudy oversized jackets and rolled up and stonewashed jeans are deployed here without prior warning.
This is a songbook filled to the rafters with emotive songs often paired with passionate choreography. The shaven-headed O’Gorman and Williams, in particular, are superb in their roles and form the emotional core of the production. There is genuine chemistry between the pair making their tragic story all the more heart-rending. In contrast to the ever-enthralling Stefani, Cullum and Hunter do well with their roles without ever standing out.
As an aside, Anthony Rapp, the originator of Mark Cohen role, can be seen at the same venue until 17 December or as part of the new Star Trek cast in its latest TV reboot.
**** (four stars)
Review by Frank Milazzo.
www.stjamestheatre.co.uk – Until 28th January 2017.