Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Review: Rent - Simply Theatre


On Saturday night I spent the evening watching Simply Theatre’s production of Rent at the Rhoda McGaw Theatre in Woking, because my good friend from school was in the show.

I’ve seen Rent once before, and it was actually another amateur production that the same friend was in, but I know the music really well, having performed a fair bit of it over the years.

Rent is a rock musical by Jonathan Larson, which is loosely based on Puccini’s opera, La bohème. The musical follows a group of young people, predominately artists, and their struggles with poverty, drugs, HIV/AIDS, sexuality and relationships in Bohemian New York.

As soon as we entered the theatre I was intrigued by this production; various members of the cast who were portraying the homeless were scattered around the theatre, both onstage and off, interacting with the audience and asking for money. This allowed for a really nice transition into the beginning scenes of the show and established their quite permanent place on stage. One thing that was consistently impressive was the inherent anger within these individuals, along with the majority of the cast, which was conveyed through even the smallest of movements. In a production of this intensity it’s easy to become too dramatic and forceful, but the whole cast maintained just the right levels of understated frustration.

Photo Credit: Front of House Photography
The beginning of Rent is undeniably slow, but this is at fault of the script and its methods of introducing the individual characters. Mark (Freddie Cox) and Roger (Matt Hough) handled these opening moments really well, launching themselves into the title song, Rent, with an enthusiasm that set the bar for the rest of the evening.  Mark, as the narrator character of the show, is written fairly neutrally into the script, and I do think that Cox could have afforded to project a little more specific personality into the character, but his performance became stronger song by song. Hough played a very broody Roger, which made his on and off relationship with Mimi make sense in a way I hadn’t considered before, and he delivered most of the difficult vocals seemingly with ease.

The staging of this production allowed for seamless transitions between scenes, with different structures and levels being convincingly reimagined throughout. The main structure was particularly effective during Mimi and Roger’s first encounter, allowing Mimi (Grace Mouat) to walk all over Roger and the apartment, in more than one sense. Mouat was the standout performer of this production for me; she was fascinatingly confident and in control and didn’t break character once. And this is without even mentioning her stunning vocals and enviable dancing.

Photo Credit: Front of House Photography
One further aspect of the staging that worked really well was the screen that filled the back wall, acting both as a backdrop and a metaphorical division of time or space. I loved how we only initially witnessed Maureen (Frankie McKean) from behind through the transparency of the screen, keeping her as this elusive and mysterious figure that we kept hearing about from other characters. It really solidified the Tango of Maureen episode as well as reinforcing the fact that she has all of these people doing everything for her, allowing her only to turn up for the moment of her performance, in true diva style. And McKean certainly did justice to this side of Maureen, as well as revealing the unexpected softer and more loving parts of her character.

Photo Credit: Front of House Photography
However the best use of the screen was another instance where its transparency was in use, and it allowed for a beautiful scene with Mimi singing Without You downstage and Collins (Alex Kirkham) helping Angel (Jamie McNicholas) into his hospital gown and bed.

This heart-breaking moment was largely due to the relationship Kirkham and McNicholas had already established in the scenes running up to Angel’s demise. For want of a better phrase, McNicholas completely nailed the part of Angel, both in portraying the sass and playful aspects of the character and in displaying the utter selflessness that Angel comes to represent.

Yet it wasn’t until I’ll Cover You (Reprise) that the tragedy of what had happened really struck. It is so rare in amateur theatre to experience such a convincing moment of raw emotion, but Kirkham’s powerful vocal performance evidentially tore everyone to pieces, both on stage and in the audience.

Choreography played a really important part in drawing out small details in this production, particularly during numbers such as Out Tonight, Over the Moon and La Vie Boheme, and the dancing was to an impressively high standard throughout.

Photo Credit: Front of House Photography

One final moment I have to mention is Seasons of Love. The company began the second act by entering the space from behind the audience, and gradually surrounding us on their way to the stage during this song. Not only did it create an amazing sound, but it really summed-up what this show is all about; solidarity, passion and measuring  life in moments of joy.

Photo Credit: Front of House Photography

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