New York Low-Rent's Glorious Love-in
Nick Hennegan reviews latest production at the Tabard Theatre
Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first. One. The programme. I know it's nothing to do with the show, but it IS all part of a good night out. And it ain't worth £3.50 for an A5 glossy cast list and a few ads. Although £1 from each programme goes to charity, so you must buy one. But give us some context and show information, programme producer people.
Two. The band. It's too loud. Not as in ear-bleeding "turn that music down" loud, but this show is being mixed like a rock gig, not a rock musical. We need to HEAR the lyrics. All the time. Every song and every character. It's a fundamental must-do for musical theatre. And it's a really difficult thing to do.
Having said that, however, I DID attend a preview performance rather than the official press night. In fact I found out later I was there the very first time the cast had performed on the stage, so it's perhaps rather un-fair to mention it. And sound is the sort of thing the creative team will fix as the run beds-in. Or at least has its second performance!
Three. The reason the above matters - well maybe not the stuff about the programme - is that 'Rent', is gonna be a must see 'happening' in Chiswick. The young, talented, energetic cast, with director Adam Scown's crisp choreography are hugely appealing. It's almost impossible not to care about them. And boy, some of them can sing!
Loosely based on Puccini's 'La Boheme', 'Rent' has a great pedigree and is an award-winning show. It's also fairly unusually written entirely by one person. Book, music and lyrics are by Jonathan Larson and it's obviously autobiographical although the tragedy is that he died on the very morning of Rent's official premiere in the U.S.A. It's the story of a group of writers and artists struggling to pay the rent and make a living in a New York loft, under the shadow of the HIV/AIDS virus. And if that sounds grim, it's not.
In some ways this production feels a bit like a poverty-stricken version of 'Friends'. Some of the grime and grit of poor New York is missing. But like the iconic TV show it's hard not to relate and warm to the characters. Characters like nerdy but amiable film-maker Mark (Charlie Royce) and his sensitive friendship with recently HIV diagnosed wannabe musician Roger (John Sandberg). Jodie Steele plays Mimi Marquez, the lithe, scantily-clad dancer, drug addict and love interest to both Roger and new yuppie Benjamin Coffin lll (Waylon Jacobs) who used to live in the loft, but has sold out and made his fortune. The term 'Yuppie" here is laced with venom and feels remarkably contemporary. But although B.C. 3 is the baddy of the story, one of the reasons this show succeeds is that it avoids stereotypes. As in real life, there is very little black and white in this offering and it is much stronger for it. Even the glorious drag queen Angel (William Whelton) charms and endears without stereotype.
It is a fact that American productions tend not to do well in the UK. But the script is strong and Chiswick's Rent is a back-to-basics (the show started in a fringe venue) warm, heartfelt story with a committed team that won't alienate non-bohemians and features some great songs. The second half is the strongest as character and story resolve themselves. And once the bugs are ironed out - they may be by now! - I'm sure the commitment of everyone involved will make this a must see experience. Get down to Turnham Green and Get-Down to 15 performers rocking and dancing on the tiny Tabard stage. Once again the Chiswick crew have shown how their small-scale space can produce large-scale quality. It means you don't have to travel to the West End for a great night out. Or pay their prices. Including programmes.
Rent plays at the Tabard Theatre until 31st August
August 16, 2013