Hope Mill Theatre company
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
August 6 2021-September 19 2021; 2hr 30min
When Hope Mill Theatre’s sold-out run of RENT was forced to finish after just five performances last autumn, the production moved online. Recorded on closing night, the show was then streamed as-live and became one of the theatrical highlights of the pandemic. As the New York apartment-confined cast sang of living with disease, it appeared to mirror viewers’ lockdown experiences.
The question, 10 months on, is if the magic remains now the show is back on stage with new faces in the cast and a capacity crowd? It doesn’t take many musical numbers for the answer to come: an overwhelming yes. This is an exceptional and faultless production.
The show begins as the cast enters the auditorium through the audience’s door to the distant sounds of buzzy New York, and steps on to the stage. For the most part, they never leave it. A group of penniless artists must work out how to pay last year’s rent and avoid eviction at the same time as navigating issues of love, loss, mortality and selling out.
Loosely based on Puccini’s La Boheme, Jonathan Larson’s musical has become a modern classic in its own right thanks to successful revivals, international productions and screen adaptations. The rock musical tackles gentrification, homelessness, prostitution, drugs and infidelity under the constant shadow of HIV/AIDS. On paper, the complex and interwoven plot can feel confusing and cumbersome. But the many characters, storylines and themes are perfectly sewn together here thanks to Luke Sheppard’s superb direction.
Anyone who saw the online version will instantly recognise David Woodhead’s incredible design. It’s impossible to tell where the bricks of the 1824 former Manchester mill end and the modern Manhattan set begins. It's stunningly lit in neon and fairy lights, and as Mark (Luke Bayer) documents developments with a Super 8 camera, his shots are projected live on to a translucent curtain at the back of stage, partly masking the fantastic live band.
The energetic and emotional musical numbers are perfectly choreographed, with an incredible combination of both 1980s/90s moves and more modern elements.
Every member of the progressively-cast ensemble is on top form and in full voice. No one puts a foot wrong but some performances stand out and will live long in the memory.
To call Tom Francis outstanding as Roger would be a vast understatement. His delivery of One Song Glory is satisfyingly heartbreaking but he is then just as powerful sitting to the side watching his love, Mimi (Maiya Quansah-Breed), dancing. He may be off stage but he is acting and living every beat and it’s incredible to watch.
There isn't a dry eye in the house when Dom Hartley-Harris peacefully grieves his loss as Collins, while Iona Fraser showcases both powerhouse vocals in Seasons of Love and some rather special kazoo skills too. Special mention too for Alex Thomas-Smith as magical Angel, a part they were surely born to play.
Millie O’Connell stops the show though, when the enigmatic Maureen finally appears and performs her hilarious art school parody. Proof, if it were needed, of the power of a live audience – a live audience that is never a passive observer but a crucial part of this production: from mooing along to Maureen’s protest to being lit up and asked to question its own consumerism during What You Own.
By the time of the instant, and fully-deserved, standing ovation it’s clear this production of RENT thrives, grows and actually packs an even stronger punch in person.