RENT

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

When Hope Mill Theatre announced their summer revival of RENT back in January the buzz about the show quickly engulfed social media; this felt like the most perfect choice for the boundary-pushing, award-winning theatre. Punchy, loud, proud and fuelled by hope, RENT was swiftly propelled into many a ‘must-see list’; billed as the show we all needed in our lives, then…well we all know what happened next.

While the pandemic closed theatres across the country, devastating the Arts, Hope Mill Theatre never lost faith that their much-anticipated production would play to audiences this year. Safeguards were made to film the production should the worst-case scenario of a second lockdown happen and so unbelievably we find ourselves at the show’s official opening which heartbreakingly is also its closing.

The exposed brickwork and anti-Reagan graffiti of David Woodhead’s set transports us to Manhattan’s East Village where a group of young, penniless bohemians strive to live, love and create underneath the looming shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As the devastation and desperation increases so does their sense of family and the ultimate need to make a lasting mark on the world before their lights are extinguished.

Director Luke Sheppard and his team of creatives have truly embraced this piece resulting in a bold, dynamic and meticulously crafted production. The love bursts from each character while their palpable desperation combined with a spirit of defiance is as heart-breaking as it is heart-warming. There is an undeniable sense of urgency; these are stories that need to be told, experiences that need to be shared and a love that needs to be felt.

The cast sit around the stage throughout, feeling and experiencing the heartache, pain and joy of each other’s stories. Touch is infrequent, marked by a fizz of electricity as Howard Hudson’s light design flickers in reaction, making those infrequent yet delicious moments all the more powerful.

Tom Francis makes an incredible stage debut as Roger, his strong swagger is ripped away as his fear of dying takes hold, cradled collectively by the soothing ensemble of resolute voices. Blake Patrick Anderson’s Mark has a quirky sweetness, hiding behind his camcorder in a bid to save him from connecting too deeply thus exposing him to ultimate loneliness while ex-housemate Benny (Ahmed Hamad) plays a strong enemy to the bohemian life he once embraced.

Mimi’s (Maiya Quansah-Breed) strutting and sass is replaced by a heart-breaking vulnerability while Maureen (Millie O’Connell) and Joanne’s (Jocasta Almgill) fractious relationship bubbles and simmers throughout. Deeply entwined in the story is the moving relationship between HIV positive Angel (Alex Thomas-Smith) and older lover Collins (Dom Hartley-Harris) their purity and commitment to each other brings heartening joy to the piece while Hartley-Harris’ delivery of I’ll Cover You – Reprise is gut-wrenchingly brilliant.

RENT is truly an ensemble piece and is at it’s most powerful when this talented cast together with outstanding featured ensemble members Kayla Carter, Allie Daniel, Isaac Hesketh and Bethany Terry unite to deliver Larson’s anthemic score. From the iconic Seasons of Love to the stirring No Day But Today the sheer brilliance of this production envelopes you entirely. Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography adds an edgy punch while Musical Supervisor Katy Richardson ensures the pounding score will long echo after the curtain comes down

While 2020 has been a year of unprecedented heartbreak and bitter disappointments this incredible piece stands proud, shouting from the rooftop for all to hear, not only is RENT viable it is vital; it’s pounding energy combined with gut-wrenching optimism confirming to all that the show most definitely MUST go on.

Rent is available to view online on selected dates from Friday 27th November until Sunday 20th December booking is essential tickets available via https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/rent-online

Titanic the Musical

Titanic

One of the most infamous disasters of all time where a heart-breaking 1517 men, women and children lost their lives may not seem like the most obvious choice for a musical makeover, however this Broadway originated production and winner of 5 Tony Awards has its sights firmly set on disproving that.

Thom Southerland has stripped back the original Broadway production which was first seen on British shores at the Southwark Playhouse in 2013 before a critically acclaimed 11 week run at the Charing Cross Theatre in 2016. David Woodhead’s two-tier set with metallic proscenium arch has been upscaled to take in the large venues on this new tour to great effect; immediately transporting audiences to the decks of the doomed ship.

Howard Hudson’s atmospheric lighting reflects the changing mood and emotion of the story perfectly as bright, brilliant optimism is replaced with a chillingly dark desperation. Further adding to the authenticity of the piece is Mark Aspinall’s band who provide an evocative soundtrack of strings & percussion, sweeping magnificently from joyful light-hearted optimism to the dreaded fear of impending doom.

Maury Yeston & Peter Stone’s award-winning musical fills the Lowry’s Lyric Theatre with its soaring score and impressive 25 strong cast whose ensemble pieces are note perfect, packed full of power and quite simply breath-taking. Based on the real stories of passengers aboard the ill-fated ship the ending is one we are all familiar with the characters however perhaps not. The hard-working cast slip effortlessly from one role into another, portraying passengers of all classes to great effect, a nod perhaps to the fact that once you take away the riches & finery of this world we’re all the same.

The plight of the 3rd class is particularly poignant in this production, they are in effect seen the same as the rats that inhabit the lower decks. Their hopes and dreams however soar high, perfectly portrayed in the song Lady’s Maid where burning ambitions are revealed as excitement builds for the new lives each 3rd class passenger yearns for unaware of their tragic fate. The Proposal/The Night was Alive also offers a touching opportunity to delve into the backstories of characters Barrett and Bride, beautifully delivered by Niall Sheehy and Oliver Marshall it is a real stand out moment within Act I.

While the production is visually impressive and the cast one of the most talented ensembles you’re likely to see the depth of characters is somewhat lacking. There are so many stories going on that you never really get the opportunity to connect or care about anyone, leaving the final scenes much less emotional than they should be. Characters while portrayed well aren’t given the time to develop or grow leaving the audience disconnected to their plight. It feel like quite a marmite production, while some audience members around me mumbled that it was too slow, many leapt to their feet at the end.

I wanted so much to love this production, the cast are outstanding, their delivery faultless, the set, costumes, songs and score all beautiful the emotional connection however was lacking for me, sadly this production never fully set sail.

Titanic the Musical on at The Lowry until Saturday 12th May tickets available here.