FringeReview UK 2016
Based on Puccini’s ‘La Boheme’ the rock opera Rent, with music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, tells the story of one year in the life of friends living the Bohemian lifestyle in East Village, New York City, from 1989 to 1990 or 5,25,600 minutes as one of its most well-known number illustrates. The show ran on Broadway for an astonishing twelve years.
Rent traces the lives of a number of young people who live in or near a New York rented apartment. Amongst these there is a nerdy filmmaker Mark Cohen. Mark’s former girlfriend, Maureen Johnson; Maureen’s lawyer and lesbian lover, Joanne Jefferson; Mark’s room-mate, HIV-positive musician and former junkie, Roger Davis; Roger’s new girlfriend, the HIV-positive drug addicted dancer, Mimi Marquez; their former room-mate, HIV-positive computer genius Tom Collins; Collins’ HIV-positive drag queen/lover Angel; and Benjamin Coffin III, a former member of the group who has since become their unpleasant landlord. These are very mixed up young people all seeking to come to terms with life and in many cases, their own sexuality in an era when HIV was rife across the world and AIDS was a tragic death sentence. Hardly the subject for an upbeat musical you might assume, right? Well, you’d be wrong!
Right from the start of the performance, the various characters draw you into their confused and disordered world. Once your attention is captured, you soon become hooked and the sheer energy of the piece whisks you along at high speed. Every square millimetre of the theatre space is utilised as the action on stage is taken right into the heart of the audience, giving them a very real sense of involvement. Scenery changes are quickly executed moving rapidly from an apartment to an HIV support group, an exotic pole-dancing club, a tube train, back to the apartment etc. etc. This is no low-budget show, but one where all the necessary disciplines for musical theatre are strongly displayed.
Tim Newman’s Direction is razor sharp, and Emma Green’s Choreography, supported by Kate Alexander and Stuart Dawes, is to die for. The singing is superb as one by one, these well-known numbers are rendered by the highly talented cast. The lighting for this show is phenomenal for a small theatre and great credit must go to an excellent band of musicians who move the story forward with excellent rhythm and pace.
But let’s be honest; the subject matter is fairly stark and the book and lyrics do not pull any punches. This is 1989 New York life in the raw and so unlike today, people of any age suffering with HIV at that time, saw little hope of any real future. The theme of death is never far from consideration and towards the conclusion of the piece, two of the principle characters die. These poignant scenes are so delicately and sensitively handled by the young cast that by the end of this show, there is barely a dry eye in the house. But although the serious issues surrounding drug taking, sexual identity, gay issues and even death are there for all to see, this musical is interlaced with strong life affirming numbers that help you gain a certain perspective; that every minute of your own precious life is incredibly valuable.
This is a challenging piece for any company to attempt, but the students at the Brighton Academy of Performing Arts tackle this show with what appears to be great ease. The characters within the story are all brilliantly portrayed by a fantastic cast of principle leads, and a truly exceptional ensemble. I have decided not highlight any particular cast members here as there are two principle casts for this show, who swap in and out of the ensemble on certain performances; so if I begin, I am sure to miss someone out. However, suffice it to say that here you have a company of highly talented young musical-theatre actors and dancers, working together as a team to find success, and that oft-elusive goal is well achieved.
The Brighton Academy for Performing Arts have put on a Graduation Show that really did not feel like one. The entire piece was to a high professional standard that would easily match any performing arts course in the UK and felt just a few short steps away from the West End. This was a truly unforgettable show that will live long in my memory and I suspect, in the memories of many of the audience who gave a long standing ovation at the conclusion of the performance.