Adam Wollerton checks out the 20th anniversary run of RENT in the West End.
RENT: The 20th Anniversary at St James Theatre, London
***** – 5 Stars
‘You’ll be over the moon you decided to go out tonight!’
This week marks the opening of the much anticipated 20th Anniversary performances of RENT at St James Theatre, London. With the overwhelming excitement tied to this production from its audiences, it also brings with it huge expectations on any cast that chooses to take on the roles in Jonathan Larson’s iconic rock opera. And this lucky Vada reviewer was only sat next to Producer Robert Mackintosh with his brother Cameron Mackintosh behind me next to the original Broadway Producer of RENT and upcoming sure-to-be West End hit, Hamilton. A brilliant opportunity to chat RENT with the people who brought it to the stage.
RENT is a show that has been produced as a film adaptation, on both the London and Broadway stage and also filmed live on Broadway. So this most recent production to celebrate 20 years of RENT, definitely had every RENT-head going!
The first two to grace the stage are Billy Cullum as Mark Cohen, and Ross Hunter as Roger Davis. Now, Cullum might not be the traditional mark to the eye (often the image of a single striped knitted jumper, light hair, glasses-sporting type of guy pops to mind!) but his vocal abilities and characterisation is perfect. It seems a trivial thing to mention the appearance of Mark, but in fact its just one little foresight into the originality that this production team has weaved into the all familiar web of RENT: The Musical. Cullum plays Mark brilliantly and highlights the comedy within the role accurately even managing to find a few new original points (particular note within Tango Maureen) and really makes the role his own.
The aforementioned Hunter, as Roger, was perfect. Often a role that sees a gritty, older rock figure, we are this time presented with an almost grungy mid-twenties character. His voice his the perfect match for Roger and again, the brilliant vocal arrangements throughout his songs add a touch of originality which pleasantly surprises any hardcore RENT-head!
After meeting these two leading men, the aspect of this production that becomes obvious is its younger cast. There have been productions of RENT over the last decade that have turned to big West-End stars and the more seasoned theatre actor for the roles of RENT, however the casting of the St James Production is what makes this version so original. And they do not disappoint.
The revelation of Angel is always a much anticipated point when seeing the show and Conti-Kid Layton Williams does not disappoint. From his initial beat of the bucket on stage, to his rendition of Contact, Williams is flawless. Choreography by Lee Proud is executed with precision, determination, and an abundance of technical skill that gives the role of Angel a new life. Refreshing. Original. Passionate. Just a few words that describe Williams’ performance throughout this production.
His relationship with Collins, played soulfully by Ryan O’Gorman, is something to be admired and that can really set the stage for our LGBT readers and audiences. A harmonious reflection of gay relationships on stage presenting tender moments, genuine care, and true love acted with sincerity and believability. Much credit to Williams and O’Gorman who somehow take the attention of an entire auditorium and still manage to get you to believe the true feelings between these two characters that is reflected in their eyes. It also has to be noted that O’Gorman’s voice is godly. His resonant tones really emphasise his care over the character of Angel when matched to Williams higher range. And later in the show, you will be biting back the tears during his reprise of ‘I’ll Cover You’.
Mimi Marquez is the role of the playful, drug dependant and raunchy kitten from the Cat Scratch Club. And yet again, the role is drenched with commitment and passion from actor Philippa Stefani. I have often seen Mimi being played as a little feeble and weak, but I feel that is a misunderstanding of this character. Stefani has done a brilliant job of portraying Mimi as a strong, playful young woman. Her version of Out Tonight with gritty vocals and sharp committed choreography was perfect and really emanated the personality of her presentation of Mimi Marquez. What these choices of character did for Stefani is gave her the opportune moments to choose when to soften Mimi and really show when she lets her guard down – i.e. when she is really falling for the character of Roger. It was the perfect establishment of the character of Mimi and many congrats to Stefani.
And for my final commendations for the night. They go to Lucie Jones and Shanay Holmes. The two latest actresses to step into the Doc Martins of Maureen Johnson and Joanne Jefferson. In short, they were feisty, full of female vocal power, and again brought great comedy to the role at the perfect time. Their performance of ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ was as electric as you would hope for as a RENT-head, and Jones’ version of ‘Over the Moon’ was a bit of a slow starter but it quickly turned round and became a highlight of the first half.
RENT is ultimately a show about love and relationships – whether thats with a person, their dependence on life saving drugs, or the more sensual side of being close to someone. The presentation of relationships is particularly well done. I have to give one final congratulations to Williams and O’Gorman whose on stage relationship was the strongest connection I think I’ve ever seen between Collins and Angel.
RENT 20th Anniversary production at St James Theatre is an absolute theatrical triumph. Congratulations to everyone behind this staging of RENT and best wishes for the future of the production. If you haven’t yet grabbed a ticket, keep an eye out for tour dates too, and you’ll be over the moon you decided to go out tonight!