Friday, 3 April 2015

Review | RENT (Hutton Theatre) April 2015

Jonathan Larson's RENT has in recent years grown increasingly popular in the amateur and off-West End theatres. With a great number of productions popping up, you wonder perhaps what is the draw to a musical notorious in its focus on impoverished young artists under the shadow of HIV/AIDS. It is the sense of community that is most endearing and set to a powerful rock score its highly appealing on many levels, despite the ultimate focus on struggle. 

Talking of struggle, to set this in the round has its challenges and here director Alastair Norton takes his focus on community and utilises the non-traditional performance space to emphasise that theme. In South Staffs Musical Theatre Company's latest production, you find yourself surrounded and ultimately part of the Bohemian world. For the duration, you're exposed and involved - the seats aren't the most comfortable, but neither is Bohemian life. It's a 360, immersive experience - a unique way to present a musical that is perhaps otherwise considered overdone. To disregard tradition and present an entirely new format is a brave move... but a risk well taken. 

The space does have limitations and depending on where you're sat, sometimes crucial moments are missed. The only way to overcome this is to keep rotating the action which would eventually become tiresome - the emerging talent helps indefinitely to look past any sightline niggles - as a regular theatregoer you'd come to expect this in any round performance. 

The cast is headed up by Matt Nicholas and Chris Eastup as Mark and Roger - one a documentary maker, the other a guitarist. Nicholas gives a particularly focused, endearing Mark while Eastup with his shadowy eyeliner is more toughened and impresses with a solid vocal performance. Eastup's duet with Lexie Bennett as Mimi is particularly beautiful, a heartbreaking and incredibly raw moment. Nicole Roberts also impresses as Maureen - a comic rendition of Over The Moon conjures laughter from the audience, invited to 'moo' with her. She is paired well with Abbie Rai as Joanne and between them manage to riff some notable lines of Take Me Or Leave Me. 

Andrew Newton manages to keep a cold heart as Benny while at the opposite end, James Thomas is suitably flamboyant with a generous disposition as young drag queen Angel Schunard. Thomas works well with Simon McGee as Tom Collins and the pair deliver some tender and  more lighthearted earlier moments. 

Throughout the evening, vocals are controlled well to tackle the demands of the incredibly complex and rather high rock score - there are moments that don't meet vocal perfection but evidently, a lot of time has gone into solid harmony work from a dedicated ensemble. 

This is a subtle RENT, you won't be overpowered by incredibly loud rock music from this band of five. What is usually loud, trashy and in-your-face is actually stripped back and interestingly, creates a more tender, susceptible production - much like the vulnerable personalities that these characters are trying to hide. It reveals and observes an unseen layer. 

Ultimately, South Staff's RENT has been nurtured by director Norton, to be the best it can with venue and cast. And as the cast sing "Christmas bells are ringing..." for the final time tonight, the company then look forward to their next production, White Christmas at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from 1 - 5 December. Tickets here

Photographs | New Era Photography

Rent Cast List: Chris Eastup, Matt Nicholas, Simon McGee, Andrew Newton, Abbie Rai, James Thomas, Lexie Bennett, Nicole Roberts, Ellie Farmer, Niamh-Margaret McGowan, Kate Pingree-Webber, David Michael Ball, Marcus Perry, Dan Flaherty, Natalie Baggott, James Collins. 

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