There’s always something a little bit scary about returning to the things you loved as a kid when you’re older and (supposedly) wiser. So sitting down to watch the 25th Anniversary tour of RENT at the Wales Millennium Centre last night, I was understandably nervous.
Would I, now 20 something and a struggling writer, still sympathise with the penniless bohemian heroes? Can something set so firmly in the nineties not feel dated and awkward some 20 years later? Can a slick, UK touring theatre production, performing in Cardiff’s fanciest venue, still retain the gritty, dirty feel of a story that’s essentially about being deeply poor? Yes, yes and yes.
For those who didn’t grow up singing Seasons of Love at every available opportunity (and consequently have to think much harder about how many minutes are in a year), RENT is a modern, sexy, cold, hungry, artsy and penniless version of Puccini’s La Boheme. The plot centres around a group of friends/frenemies struggling to survive as artists (and sometimes just survive full stop) in New York under the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. Mark, a film-maker, is struggling to create his magnum opus and to connect to the real world outside of a view-finder. Musician Roger agonises over writing the perfect song, while fighting to resist the onset of AIDS and the love he feels for fellow sufferer and Heroin addict Mimi. Academic Collins falls tragically in love with the riotous Angel, a drag queen with a heart as big and glittering as the sea. Larger than life Maureen and her sensible, organised partner Joanne fall in love and fight and fall in love some more. Lives mingle, stories collide, hearts break, and the horrid grip of AIDs starts to tear relationships apart.
The set, a stylish collision of ladders, girders and exposed metal perfectly creates the harsh environ of a crumbling block of flats in New York’s bohemian East Village. The explosive, fast paced musical numbers drag you in and leave you feeling a little bit dizzy by halftime.
By the end of the show, I honestly had to have a few minutes to decompress before I left the theatre. My heart hurt, my head was spinning, and I just wanted to watch it again; immediately.
The cast are all gems. Every actor, from supporting roles to leads burn bright on stage, throwing themselves through punishing dance routines, soaring high-notes and a number of impressively speedy costume changes. Special mention however, must be given to Layton Williams as Angel. Layton delivers an impressive performance; bringing such a larger-than-life character to the stage with sass and sensitivity. Also, he does like a million backflips in heels and it’s incredible.
My only complaint would be that the rip-roaring speed does sometimes leave you missing out. Some of the fab, tongue- in-cheek lyrics get lost in the sheer pace of the songs. You don’t get to linger over classics like Today 4 U, because the story will leap on without you and another song will have started by the time you come around.
But if you’ve got the energy to keep up (and if you can squash your inner adult enough to stop yourself screaming when Mark turns down a paying arts job for the sake of integrity), RENT is one hell of a ride. 25 years young and clearly not slowing down, the new tour is well worth a watch if you get the chance. Just warn your house mates that you’ll be singing in the shower for the next fortnight.
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