RENT

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

9 months after its original opening night which heartbreakingly coincided with the eve of the 2nd national lockdown it’s fair to say the cast, crew and creatives of Rent have never given up hope that their show would be seen by live audiences; cue a weekend of sell-out previews followed by a spectacular gala night, confirming that Rent is back, with renewed passion, urgency, and an overwhelming sense of triumph.

This gritty rock musical, set in New York’s East Village introduces us to a group of bohemian artists who despite their daily struggles, battle through life with determination and heart, strengthened by a deep-seated love and genuine friendship which connects them wholeheartedly. They too are living through unprecedented times as the AIDS epidemic sweeps through their streets and the elite want them cleared out of the neighbourhood.

Director Luke Sheppard and his team have created a truly mesmerising production, adding depth and energy to characters many musical theatre fans feel they know so well. The passion and thrill at being back on stage radiates from each performer with Tom Jackson Greaves’ punchy choreography offering a physical outlet for their frustrations as they fiercely defend their right to be heard. Similarly Musical Supervisor Katy Richardson and Musical Director Chris Poon ensure that familiar pounding score is note perfect while David Woodhead’s set and costume design paired with Howard Hudson’s lighting transports us to the atmospheric streets of New York.

Luke Bayer sets the tone right from the start as Mark, and angst filled filmmaker whose energy never wanes. Kooky and complex his video camera acting as a safety blanket protecting him from connecting too deeply and exposing his lonely reality.

Tom Francis is sensational as Roger, his rock God-like swagger draws you in while his brooding vulnerability catches you completely off-guard. His scenes with Maiya Quansah-Breed are simply beautiful, the two manage to make you feel like you’re observing a couple’s private moments; so in tune with each other are they. They draw out every ounce of emotion from their scenes, taking you along on their impassioned journey.

The deeply moving relationship between Angel and Collins which weaves through the storyline is both joyful and devastating in equal measure. Hartley-Harris’ delivery of I’ll Cover You – Reprise is breathtakingly beautiful while Alex Thomas-Smith’s Angel is pure perfection.

Cutting through the intensity is Millie O’Connell’s, Maureen who bickers and squabbles with girlfriend Joanne (Jocasta Almgill) throughout, her delivery of Over The Moon is hilarious. Both O’Connell and Almgill give their characters real strength, authenticity and bucketloads of personality while their rich vocals deliver some killer harmonies.

Michael Ahomka-Lindsay ensures Benny is seen as more than just a former friend turned landlord as his connection to the group warms and solidifies. Completing the casting is the featured ensemble who add bite and pure passion to the production; Issac Hesketh, Alison Driver, Iona Fraser, Joe Foster and Karl Lankester’s versatility and skill really authenticates this production as a true ensemble piece.

There is a strong sense of coming together in the face of adversity which drives the show, something we can all relate to given recent testing times. The poignancy of the piece truly connecting with the audience in the intimacy of the former cotton mill. The full ensemble pieces are thrilling, intimate and bursting with life while the stripped back moments are spine-tinglingly perfect.

At a time when theatre needs as much support as possible Rent is leading the charge for Hope Mill Theatre’s Covid recovery proving entirely that there’s nothing quite like the thrill of live theatre. Proud, punchy and powerful, Rent has it all!

Rent is on at Hope Mill Theatre until Sunday 19th September, tickets available now https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/rent

Interview | Darragh Cowley & Jabez Sykes | Spring Awakening

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Ground-breaking pop-rock Broadway musical Spring Awakeningwith it’s emotive and important themes of sexuality, religion, gender and self-discovery opens in Manchester’s Award winning Hope Mill theatre this week. The UK revival of Duncan Sheik and Steven Slater’s musical set in the late nineteenth-century has themes which resonate heavily today as we follow a group of young teenagers on a journey of self-discovery in a environment of censorship and silence.

The production which opens for previews on Thursday 29th March is the second of five in-house musicals this year from the enormously successful collaboration between Hope Mill Theatre’s founders Joseph Houston and William Whelton and co-artistic director and resident producer Katy Lipson. Directed by Luke Sheppard the defining musical of the last decade has created a buzz on social media since the moment it was first announced.

We spoke to Manchester cast members Darragh Cowley who plays Melchior and Jabez Sykes who takes on the role of Moritz to find out a little more about the production and hear how it feels to be performing something so hotly anticipated on home soil.

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Opening Night: For those unfamiliar with the show can you give us a brief outline and tell us a little about your characters?

Darragh Cowley: I play Melchoir, who is a very forward thinking young teenager, very clever, very intelligent. Spring Awakening is a real pop, rock, rah rah against the system really, it’s the youth trying to defy the system in which they have been brought up and to break the traditions that they don’t really think are right. It covers themes of teen pregnancy, child abuse, mental health and youung persons suicide but then the overall theme towards the end is about growth and rebuild and how people can get back from that sort of thing, it’s a beautiful, beautiful piece it’s gorgeous.

Jabez Sykes: I play Mortiz, there’s a lot going on for Moritz at this time, he’s dealing with a lot of pressure, his mental health maybe isn’t the best that it could be, which has been quite a daunting task really to take on, it’s such a sensitive subject and such a hot subject right now but I really think we’ve done it justice, working with the cast, our director Luke Sheppard, choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves and musical director Gareth Bretherton it’s been a real collaborative experience and I think we’ve really got there with tackling the important issues in the piece.

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How as a cast do you work on developing trust and chemistry?

JS: From day one we were all so comfortable with each other, it was almost like we knew each other from another life.

DC: There was such a nice feeling in the room, it was immediately really comfortable.

JS: It really was lovely, I think no one is scared of getting anything wrong, everyone is so supportive of each other, which makes for a really great working environment.

DC: Luke Sheppard our director has made it very much a collaborative process so before we do any scene we’ll sit and talk through it so we can all put our ideas in, even a few weeks into the rehearsal process we might say, actually Luke can I try this idea, can I still play with it? And he just tells us to go for it and see what it’s like, it might be terrible idea and he’ll say ‘Darragh what were you thinking?’ But if not he is more than welcome to accommodate and include our ideas.

JS: In terms of trust a lot of the subjects are very delicate and everyone is fighting their own personal battles so something might affect somebody in a way that doesn’t affect somebody else, but one of the things we’ve all learned is that you have to be patient with everybody, you have to have respect for each other and I think with that comes a natural trust.

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There is a real online buzz about the show, is that felt by the cast and does it add any pressure?

JS: I think there’s always that little bit of your head that’s saying oh my God so many people are really excited about this and I think because it’s such a special and quite a cult show for some people but I feel confident that what we have produced is a really, really beautiful piece and we’re excited now and ready for audiences to see it.

DC: The buzz online about the show has really put some wind behind our sails, I’ve never been in something of this scale, we’ve been rehearsing now for six weeks or so and I feel ready to stat beginning to share it, I’m excited, there’s a pressure but there’s an excitement too, I just feel right now let’s go, let’s do it!

JS: We really feel that everyone who has been tweeting about the show is really positive and really behind us and are coming to support us because they love the show and they want it to be as brilliant as we know it is.

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Are you looking forward to performing at Hope Mill Theatre?

DC: It’s a dream, I started my theatre career doing amateur dramatics at the plaza in Stockport, went through Manchester Musical Youth then went to Guilford to train for 3 years, finished two weeks ago and it’s literally a dream to come back to the city where it all started, where I grew up, went to school, it’s just gorgeous to be able to come back and say ‘Hi I’m an actor now, look I did it!’ It really is an absolute dream to be back in the city where I’m from.

JS: I’m so excited, I just can’t wait, it feels really special, I feel like things have gone full circle for me, I went to watch Parade at Hope Mill which was their first in-house musical, and I knew the moment it finished I wanted to work at Hope Mill and now here I am, I’m so grateful and so excited for this opportunity and I really cannot wait to get started.

Spring Awakening begins previews at Hope Mill Theatre on Thursday 29th March and runs until Thursday 3rd May tickets available here.