THEATRE REVIEW: Rent at Rotherham Civic Theatre

Michael Upton reviews Rotherham Musical Theatre Company's take on the 1990s musical.

BILLING your new show as a legendary, multi-award-winning and ground-breaking rock musical sets a pretty high standard to meet.

That’s the benchmark RMTC set themselves when they embarked on a virtual journey to New York City’s East Village, where Jonathan Larson’s acclaimed story focusses on struggling artists in living lives of “Bohemian excess” at “the end of the Millennium”.

The opera-inspired show — which takes its cues from Puccini’s La Bohème -  took countless top awards and ran on Broadway for an astonishing 12 years.

Its run in Rotherham is somewhat shorter at just five nights and RMTC are presumably in it for the craic rather than the plaudits.

And the standing ovation from large sections of the Civic audience on opening night shows they can be well pleased with themselves.

Rent (the title refers to the cash flatmates Roger and Mark can’t muster, raising the spectre of eviction) is not your average am-dram show - it’s sweary, sexy, challenging and occasionally outrageous. It’s flamboyant and operatic but also nuanced and complex.

The Civic website warns punters to be aware of the production’s adult themes and content, and there are moments of blue language, racy dancing and same-sex kissing which might shock the more sensitive audience members unawares.

Such features only added to the sense of authenticity for me.

The Bohemian life takes all sorts and it is great to see realistic gay relationships dominating for once, with all their inherent ups, downs, intimacy and bickering portrayed with care and conviction.

The love story which develops between soulful Collins (Ben Loy) and drag queen Angel (Will Towler) is simply beautifully told and its resolution absolutely heart-breaking, while the star-crossed romance of angry, haunted musician Roger (Josh Roberts) and equally-troubled, drug-addled Mimi (Chloe Jackson) is compelling.

April Taylor and Kirsty Taylor (no relation), meanwhile, play the fiery couple Joanne and Maureen superbly.

Collins, Jackson and Roberts are great vocally, while both the cat-like Jackson and strutting Towler have such presence they command the audience’s attention.

Sam Hague pulls off the tricky role of Mark, the documentary maker singled out by best mate Roger for his detachment, and his musical theatre-style vocals blend well with Loy’s soul-inspired delivery and Roberts’ punchy snarl.

This is as much an ensemble production as a showcase of individual talent, though, and a strong supporting cast provide stirring backing on the group songs and massed dance routines, all set against a professional-looking, two-level backdrop.

Despite its fame, Rent’s songs have never made the same impact in popular culture as those from other musicals, so I was totally unfamiliar with the soundtrack.

To be honest, not all of them work for me, regardless of the abilities of RMTC’s talented members.

But some — second-half opener Seasons in Love, the moving duet of I’ll Cover You between Angel and Collins, the rambunctious La Via Boheme and the stirring finale, with its urgent “no day but today” message — are real show-stoppers, all of them performed with gusto and power.

Space prevents me praising all those I would wish to. 

Suffice to say Rent is a breath-taking break from the Civic norm. 

I’m not sure I’d be cut out for La Vie Boheme myself, but this snapshot of life “in the moment” is simply unforgettable.