How do you measure a year? When it comes to The Hope Mill Theatre in Manchesters version of RENT, you could measure it in the 525,600 twists and turns this production has had. Set to be one of the theatre highlights of 2020, its run was tragically cut short due to the constantly changing restrictions. Thankfully they managed to film one of the only performances so many could enjoy their unique staging in what was one of the online highlights of the year but now they are finally back open and, a year later than planned, it's time for last years RENT... well, this years RENT.
Since premiering in 1996, RENT has enjoyed runs on Broadway, in the West End and everywhere inbetween. Loosely based on Puccini's opera La Boheme, it is now celebrating its 25th anniversary. While the show is firmly set in the 1990s, its themes are just as relevant today with recent events making certain aspects of it hit differently and become even more poignant.
The cast features those returning from last years short-lived production joining forces with some new additions - a mix of people you regularly see gracing a West End stage and those making their professional debuts. New to the production this year is Luke Bayer, leading our narrative as film-maker Mark. With his fantastic vocals and undeniable stage presence, he is the glue that holds together this friendship group. The yin to his yang is Roger, played by Tom Francis who returns to the production. An absolute sensation on the streamed version, hearing Toms gorgeous voice in person cements the fact you are sure to be seeing a lot more of him in the future.
Jocasta Almgill is fabulous as the sassy Joanne who channels every ounce of her troubled on again/off again relationship with Maureen. Her 'Tango Maureen' with Bayer provides one of the highlights of the evening, with some fantastic choreography made all the more interesting with the fact they have continued to perform it with little contact. The aforementioned Maureen is played by Millie O'Connell who oozes star power as she sings, dances and (of course) moos across the stage. Having seen Millie in a few shows before, I can honestly say I have never seen her better than she is in this show - giving a brilliant portrayal of one of the strangest characters. The couples duet of 'Take Me Or Leave Me' is every bit as amazing as you would expect.
Maiya Quansah-Breed delights as Mimi. Whether she is flirting with Roger or dancing around the stage, she is always utterly mesmerising, and delivers her own take on a very different 'Out Tonight'. Michael Ahomka-Lindsay is a revelation making his stage debut as Benny. Though he has less stage time than the others, he completely shines when he is up there and showcases a stunning voice. The featured ensemble of Isaac Hesketh, Iona Fraser, Alison Driver, Karl Lankester and Joe Foster are all fantastic in their own individual moments in supporting roles - with Fraser and Foster delivering exceptional solos in the shows most timeless number 'Seasons of Love'.
The cast is completed by Dom Harley-Harris and Alex Thomas-Smith as Collins and Angel. While the show boasts multiple romantic pairings, this is the one that forms the emotional heart of the show. Both immeasurable talents in their own right, the chemistry the two exhibit on stage leads to a real authenticity that allows the audience to believe the pair. Alex is an absolute star in the making and will soon be seen as May in &Juliet, so seeing them take on such an iconic role in a small space felt very special, and their 'Today 4 U' was as genius as expected. The standout performance of the night undoubtedly goes to Dom for his spine-tingling and flawless rendition of 'I'll Cover You = Reprise' where he miraculously made an already emotional song all the more gut-wrenching through his mix of crazy vocals and storytelling. His rendition of that is surely up there with the single best performances I have ever seen.
The simple stage at the Hope Mill means more focus is on the cast who work extra hard to ensure the story is being told with all the sensitivity it requires. Surrounding the stage throughout the whole performance, they give the believability of this friendship group being ever-present and deliver sensational harmonies on ensemble number 'Will I'. The rustic setting of the Hope Mill Theatre adds to the charm of this show, doubling as the run-down apartment in New York the characters can't afford to rent. Fantastic choreography from Tom Jackson Greaves is at the forefront of this piece - frantic at times, beautiful in others. It adds a new layer to a show alrady oozing with depth. A testament to the genius of the choreography is in the huge number 'La Vie Boheme; which is performed with precision here.
The shows over-arching message of "No day but today" is even more poignant given what we have all been through over the last 18 months. References to a virus might not be exactly what the late Jonathan Larsson had intended back in 1996 but it makes it even more relatable now. If RENT felt like an important show with a crucial message prior to recent events, it is all the more urgent now. We could all take inspiration from the message of "Forget regret or life is yours to miss" while Maureens line about performance spaces being closed down definitely hits differently now thanks to our wonderful Government.
RENT has always been a special show. While previous incarmations of it haven't always been well-received (RENT Remixed, anyone?) this version thankfully is one of the better ones, Staying true to the original spirit of the show while adding their own spin on it with certain new additions, the Hope Mill Theatre have delivered a truly phenomenal production that fittingly adds to the legacy of this beautiful musical.
Smaller theatres such as the Hope Mill Theatre really are at the heart of theatre. A show as raw and edgy as RENT feels right at home in this gorgeous little secret, nestled away in Manchester. What they have achieved with this production is a testament to why we should all be doing everything we can to support these smaller, independent theatres so they can continue to put on remarkable shows and, of course, pay their rent.
RENT plays at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester until September 19th. Tickets are available from https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/
Photos by Pamela Raith