When I was roped into doing this I was a little skeptical. I’m generally not a fan of musicals. I’ve not been to many because I didn’t really like or understand the premise. So when the opportunity arose to go and see Rent I felt like this was a chance to try something new. I’m not a connoisseur of musicals (shame I don’t fit those stereotypes of gay men), neither am I particularly well versed in appreciating good vocals. However it really doesn’t take an expert to realise that the production put on at the ADC on Thursday was a solid piece of musical theatre. The story follows a cast of characters living in a wintry New York City during the late 80s-early 90s, with the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, crushing poverty and drug abuse. Mark (Oli MacFarlane) is a struggling filmmaker living with his room-mate, Roger (Jonah Hauer-King). Roger is a once successful but now faded HIV positive musician trying to write just one more good song before he dies. Living downstairs from Roger and Mark is exotic dancer and drug addict, Mimi (Megan Thorpe) who is also HIV positive like a number of other characters.
Mark has only recently been dumped by his ex-girlfriend Maureen (Emily Murray), a flirtatious and vivacious performance artist. Maureen’s new love interest is the Harvard educated public interest lawyer Joanne (Jossie Evans) who is fighting for her lover and a wider community in trying to prevent the homeless being evicted by yuppie businessman and harsh landlord Benny (Tyler Hagy) to build a cyber arts studio. Benny used to be a room-mate of Mark, Roger, Maureen and anarchist professor with AIDS, Tom Collins (Zak Ghazi-Torbati). We see a touching romance develop between Collins and flamboyant, generous drag queen Angel (Toby Marlow), who also suffers from AIDS and takes Collins in after finding him rough on the street. Of particular note from a queer perspective is the way that HIV/AIDS is dealt with in the production. Unlike in a film such as “The Normal Heart” which very much focuses on the huge impact of the condition on the queer community during a similar period, in this production it takes more of a background role that comes into focus at various points. It’s presented as an issue which affected both straight and queer people and the solidarity and emotion of these people is best expressed in the touching musical number, “Will I?”. Not only does it touch on how people are lost to the condition but also how people have to deal with the stigma of it and how they come out and tell their potential partners. Likewise when we consider Angel and Maureen we see more nuanced of sexuality and gender. Though Maureen has had relationships with men before, in her new relationship with Joanne she clearly identifies herself as a lesbian like her lover. This is especially relevant as discussion continues today about the importance of owning our identities and how relevant our sexual practice might be in using certain labels. Likewise with Angel, there an interesting fluidity in gender that is not directly addressed but is consistent throughout in contrast to the initial appearance of this character. I think that it would be anachronistic and premature to start applying labels of gender identity, but seeing the relationship of Angel and Collins is a nice reminder that just because we’re gay doesn’t mean that we have to conform to strict conventions of gender expression or be afraid to be intimate with those who don’t conform to conventional notions of “masculinity”. Regarding the song, music and dance I find myself quite surprised to say that I found it all very enjoyable with the whole cast displaying strong animate voices and movement. I must tip my hat off in particular to those in the cast, particularly Marlow, who danced without serious incident in some very impressive heels. Indeed during one of the musical numbers the whole audience erupted into shouting cries of “Moo!” at the cast and dancers (you’ll have to see the musical for yourself to understand why!). All in all Rent was a heavily intersectional piece that examined some very testing issues for residents of the East Village of New York City, yet the cast managed to pull it off by evoking cheers and laughter and well deserved applause. My one criticism is that the might have gone a bit overboard with the smoke effects. Even if you aren’t a fan of musicals I would recommend that you see this if you can before you go back home for the Easter break.
Tom Meadows (GR. Theatre Reviewer)