Rent – Review – York Theatre Royal
By Roger Crow, April 2017
As Rent is not a musical I’m familiar with, I give the film soundtrack a couple of listens before its debut at York’s Theatre Royal. Director Chris Columbus may have launched the Harry Potter franchise, but Rent the movie was evicted from cinemas so fast it’s a wonder viewers didn’t get whiplash.
I did more research via Neil Brand’s BBC Four series The Sound of Musicals, and while ‘Seasons of Love’, which sums up a year of moments in minutes, reminds me of why it’s the show’s standout track, I wince at one singer’s seemingly endless high notes.
“Oh dear,” I think. “She’s done a Mariah Carey”. Never use one note when a dozen will do. ‘Light My Candle’ is sweet but forgettable, while ‘Tango: Maureen’ does grab my attention.
The tale of poor young artists struggling to survive in New York City’s East Village in the thriving days of Bohemian excess looks great. The grungy, industrial set sums up the feel of Big Apple skyscrapers, and the cast ensure every inch of the stage is utilised.
“The cast are terrific”
There are amusing interludes with a concerned mother leaving a voicemail message, and the first act flies by. While part one is bursting with life, the second is overshadowed by death as a beloved protagonist inevitably falls ill. And just when I’m recovering from that surefire bombshell, another character teeters on the verge of death. If act one is Friends on a budget, act two turns into EastEnders in New York. In a word: grim.
The cast are terrific, singing their hearts out like their lives depend on it. Billy Cullum, Ross Hunter, Ryan O’Gorman and Layton Williams are just a few of the superb leads. Williams’ gymnastics alone deserve a round of applause.
X Factor veteran Lucie Jones usually plays Maureen during this UK tour. However, for the opening night in (old) York, Christina Modestou takes the role and steals the show. Her stunning turn as a Laurie Anderson-style performance artist grips me from her jaw-droppingly funny ‘Over the Moon’ sketch and into show-stopping number ‘La Vie Boheme’.
“An intriguing watch”
The relationships are often touching, though I wish some performers would dial it down during the wine-glass shattering notes. Yes, the spirit of Ms Carey is alive and well once more, though kudos to the vocalists who pull it off. It also turns into a diva-fest as artists try to out-sing the other, and while I struggle to make out many of the lyrics later in the show due to overlapping, ear-shattering vocals, there’s no denying it’s often powerful stuff.
The problem is not the performances, which are great, or Lee Proud’s choreography (outstanding), but Jonathan Larson’s book, music and lyrics. Rent feels like an off-Broadway show work-shopped with a bunch of mates. I’m sure it has to be rough and ready in places, but many of the songs are just okay, rather than exceptional. Many lyrics dovetail into each other with tiresome ’cat sat on the mat’-style predictably.
Bruce Guthrie’s new production of the 20-year-old show may not be for all tastes. But this Puccini-inspired offering is still an intriguing watch. Unlike Bat Out of Hell: The Musical, which I see a few days earlier and raises my expectations to stratospheric levels, I wouldn’t rush back for a second viewing. But I’m glad I’ve given Rent a look.
Given the standing ovation by fellow theatre goers, I’m sure many will return for repeat viewings before its final night.