The story of the Hope Mill Theatre production of Jonathan Larsson's iconic musical RENT is as full of hope, heartbreak as tragedy as the show is. Initially announced at the beginning of the year when the world was still fairly normal, the production was put on hold due to the pandemic closing theatres around the country. As we emerged from the first lockdown, the show was announced again with new dates and strict safety measures in place. When the stellar cast was announced, tickets for the entire run sold out in 48 hours making this one of the most in demand and hyped up shows of the year. The show finally opened on October 30th only to find out the next day it would have to cease performances the following week. As heartbreaking as that was, the theatre has "Hope" in its name for a reason and scrambled together to go ahead with the planned filmed version of the show in the final day before the second lockdown began. And this is the result.
Emotionally exhausted yet? We haven't even gotten to the show so brace yourself!
On to the show itself. Loosely based on Puccini's opera La Boheme, since premiering in 1996, the show has become a favourite among musical theatre fans, scooped up awards, been adapted into a movie and taught all of us how many minutes there are in a year. (Apologies for getting that earworm in your head now). A year shy of its 25th anniversary, the emotional depth of the show is made greater by the death of show creator Jonathan Larsson who tragically passed away on the morning of RENT's first preview off Broadway, never living to see how the world came to adore his creation.
The show is about a group of young artists living in New York in poverty and while dealing with HIV among their friendship group. While the show starts with characters asking how they're going to pay their rent, the title of the show carries more depth than that with comparisons to renting love and emotions. The over-arching message of the show is the message of "No Day But Today" - a theme that has taken on a life of its own in the decades since. 24 years later, it feels more relevant than ever with the challenges many of us have faced in 2020 really driving the message of "Forget regret or life is yours to miss". RENT packs an emotional punch at the best of times, but after recent events, it heightens every emotional moment throughout the show. The relevance of the show comes again with the line "They've closed everything real down ... like performance spaces" on the eve of the theatre being closed for the second time this year leaving you unsure whether to laugh, cry or simply cringe at the timeliness of it.
So how do you measure a new production of RENT? Hope Mill Theatre's version breathes new life into the show. Even though their stage is small, what they do with it is beyond genius. Directed by Luke Sheppard, every element of this production is well thought out and executed brilliantly. Importantly, this show is also filmed beautifully. While some filmed productions sometimes fail to bring justice to the show due to questionable shots or frustratingly missing important moments on stage, RENT doesn't suffer that problem, resulting in a flawless film.
The choreography in this production is second to none, with the brilliant staging of standout number 'La Vie Boheme' every bit as satisfying as you would hope. An unexpected highlight for me was 'Tango Maureen' - a number that has never been one of my favourites in the show but certainly became one in this production due to the inspired staging complete with tied cables, details in the ensemble joining in in their seats and, of course, a tango worthy of Strictly Come Dancing.
It's time to talk about the casting. There's a reason this show sold out within 48 hours of its announcement. The talent recruited for this production is simply exceptional - a collection of predominantly up and coming talent already making a name for themselves, and even some making their professional debuts. With an incredibly diverse and inclusibe cast, the choices are refreshing after some, shall we say, "questionable" casting choices this year. Maiya Quansah-Breed delivers a brilliant performance as the complicated and problematic Mimi, tapping in to every level of her personality; Jocasta Almgill is amazing as Joanne - Maureen's (played by Millie O'Connell) tormented girlfriend. Allie Daniel and Kayla Carter may only have supporting roles in the cast but they take their moment to shine and run with it in a ridiculously phenomenal rendition of the iconic 'Seasons Of Love'.
The whole cast in this production were as good as it gets but there are several performers I need to single out for bringing something else, something extraordinary to their roles:
Alex Thomas-Smith is a force to be reckoned with as Angel, a character you fall in love with the moment you meet them and whose story will break your heart and reduce you to tears. Alex clearly loves every second he is on stage playing this demanding role, with unbelievable movement and ease in standout number 'Today 4 U'. The looks he serves in this part are as stunning as you would hope.
Playing the role of Mark is Blake Patrick Anderson who is without a doubt a star in the making. Rising to prominence this year with roles in Be More Chill and Hair, Blake brings with him a stage presence not often seen. Utterly captivating, brilliant acting and emoting not to mention a voice that is a gift from the Gods, mark my words - Blake is destined to become one of the biggest names in the West End in years to come. If he hasn't won himself an Olivier award in the next five years, I'll throw an akita off the 23rd storey of a building. (I probably won't so don't actually hold me to that)
Roger is played by Tom Francis - unbelievably making his professional debut in this production. From the moment he began singing 'One Song Glory' I was obsessed. His voice, the way he channelled Roger and drained every bit of emotion he could from the character was jawdropping. When you have a cast full of big characters, it can sometimes be easy to blend in and not stand out - Tom Francis didn't have that problem. When he was on stage, you were looking to see what he was doing which is a testament to the brilliant choices he made playing Roger. Tom is another one you can expect big things from in the future.
Last but certainly not least is Dom Hartley-Harris as Collins. Given the challenge to tackle one of the shows biggest and most memorable numbers, 'I'll Cover You (Reprise)', is no easy task but Dom rises to the challenge with ease, delivering an unforgettable rendition of the song, complete with more emotion than the average rendition of the song. If this version of the song didn't reduce you to tears, you're a stronger man than me.
The songs in RENT are one of the things that make the show so great and they are all performed brilliantly in this version - from 'Out Tonight' to 'Take Me Or Leave Me' it's easy to see why these songs have lived on in the playlists of theatre fans for decades now.
RENT is a difficult show. With complicated stories, difficult themes, more emotion than most shows and an iconic songbook, there is a fine line between getting the show right and turning it into an absolute disaster. Thankfully, the Hope Mill Theatre production didn't have that problem, treading the line of faithfully reproducing the iconic moments from the original with some new updated flourishes throughout. Add to that a flawless cast, brilliant staging and the timeliness of all the events of 2020 making this show all the more poignant - the end result is a slice of musical theatre perfection worthy of adding to the RENT legacy.
If you have never seen RENT, this version is the perfect introduction for you. If you have seen it before and are maybe even a Rent-head, you are sure to love this version as much as the others. Do yourself a favour and stream it - there's no day but today!
RENT is available to stream from hopemilltheatreco.uk every weekend until December 20th