Edinburgh Fringe 2009
Edinburgh University Savoy Group
Venue: Spotlites@The Merchant’s Hall
Festival: Edinburgh Fringe
Edinburgh University’s accomplished Savoy Opera Group bring a charismatic, fantastically performed version of Jonathan Larson’s hard-hitting musical Rent to the Edinburgh Fringe.
Rent is Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking reworking of Puccini’s much loved opera, La Boheme. Set in Lower East Side New York, it portrays a group of impoverished artists and addicts – and lovers – maintaining a precarious existence under the constant shadow of AIDS. A glorious celebration of all genders, ethnicities, and sexual preferences, Rent shook up the traditionally conservative medium of musicals with its controversial topics and embrace of sexual and ethnic diversity.
EUSOG’s production, while clearly low budget – this is a university group, after all – is fresh, inventive and joyous. The set consists simply of cheap aluminium ladders, steel bins and a couple of battered tables, yet somehow conveys perfectly a world of scaffolding and tatty apartments. This is helped by the use of judicious lighting – blue tones are used to great effect to convey the cold of New York and the underworld. Perhaps the fact that the cast are all students or recent graduates helped lend an authenticity – they seemed less in costume than in character, which is a feat more professional companies would be pleased to pull off. It certainly added the necessary gritty dimension to this musical, which after all is so much more than the escapist joie-de-vivre associated with the genre.
On the night I attended disaster had struck – lead singer Ali Watt had gone down with a throat infection, and his replacement, Scott Armstrong, had never so much seen the EUSOG production before. With only two hours to rehearse, an announcement before the show asked the audience to be understanding of his using a book throughout. You could feel the desire from the audience to be supportive mingled with disappointment – after all, this was a much anticipated, completely sold out show. But from the moment he opened his mouth as Roger all qualms were gone – he gave a truly outstanding performance.
He was ably backed up by the rest of the cast, particularly Ross Martin as Mark who made their friendship totally believable. The chemistry between Roger and Mimi was less apparent, although I have no doubt that with more time the pair could be smoking. Stephanie Baillie is both talented and sexy, although better amplification would have helped to disguise that her voice, while stunning, does not have the sustained power required for the show-stopping number ‘Out Tonight’. Another voice that struggled was Jimi Mitchell’s, but the incredible sweetness he brought to the role of Angel more than justified his casting. The chemistry between him and the intensely sexy Greg McCafferty as Tom Collins very nearly stole the show.
EUSOG’s Rent is one of my personal highlights of the Festival. It is a fantastic piece of ensemble theatre with a lot of energy and charisma. While small niggles of technique prevent me from giving it the full five stars, there is a magic created on stage that is more than the sum of its parts. A very strong four stars.