I confess that my appreciation for RENT comes dangerously close to idolatry, and so it is with an eager sort of trepidation that I looked forward to DULOG’s latest venture. At stake was not only the enjoyment of an evening, but my faith in musical theatre itself. So when, just a few seconds in, a faltering opening and some dodgy microphone levels threatened to compromise the quality of the production, my heart plummeted. Fortunately, RENT quickly pulled it together in spectacular fashion, and the evening was saved.
DULOG’s challenge has been to turn a story about AIDS, poverty and drug abuse into an uplifting and life-affirming tale of fulfilment against the odds, and director Douglas Gibbs has clearly recognised this in his production. To work, RENT needs to be humourous and irreverent on the one hand, and sensitive and respectful on the other – this is no small task for musical theatre and, dramatically speaking, RENT is probably a bigger challenge than what DULOG is used to putting on. While I was never quite sure if the cast quite believed in it, the production broadly managed to achieve this tone, and for every moment that left me cold there were several that had me immersed in the drama.
The show is one of immense strengths and noticeable weaknesses, but the former are by far the more prominent. RENT has less a single plot than a series of connected scenes that tell the story of a group of friends over the course of a year. For this to work as a narrative, it must rely heavily on strong characterisation, and, fortunately, the casting here is pretty much perfect. And with a number of incredibly powerful voices, both in the main parts and the chorus, RENT is unlikely to disappoint vocally. Two of the standout performances come from Joe Leather and Simon Lynch as Angel and Collins, respectively. Bringing both pathos and humour to a role that could so easily descend into pure slapstick, Leather’s Angel is a brilliantly pitched and sympathetically developed character. Playing against him, Lynch’s Collins is the vocal highlight of the production – he is probably one of the only men in Durham who could sing ‘Santa Fe’ without sounding ridiculous, and he has found his perfect role.
Other parts are similarly well-filled, led by Michael Forde as an obvious choice for Mark with his slightly awkward charisma and easy demeanour. While Natasha Cowley’s long-anticipated entrance as Maureen is fairly self-conscious, she has no reason to be concerned and wins the audience over immediately with a passionate, feisty and amusing performance. Hannah Davenport, playing her partner Joanne, is of all the actors the most able to maintain character consistently between speech and song, and the remaining actors among the core eight – Karim Mariey, Elissa Churchill and James Hyde – deliver almost faultless vocals from beginning to end. I’m not sure if Elissa Churchill is the perfect choice for Mimi’s damaged aggressiveness, but it would have been a crime not to have cast her at all, and this is a role that gives her much deserved stage-time.
Aside from the performances, the greatest triumph of DULOG’s RENT is its design. Employing scaffolding to add different levels to the stage, the effect is more industrial than Boho, but it works well and gives more than a nod to the show’s original Broadway set. More than anything, the technical team – under Richard Hall’s technical direction and Hannah Gregory’s stage management - have fully utilised the great depth of the Assembly Rooms stage, both from a staging and lighting perspective. However, there is no avoiding the fact that the venue is not an ideal one for the production. A lack of space for movement means that some of the dance routines are constricted, and more than once a performer slipped or tripped on an object on the stage. This is something of which the choreography seems to have taken little account; it’s a shame, as there is some promise here, and some of the dancers seem more than capable of pulling it off.
Music is provided by a five-piece band, tucked under one of the scaffolding platforms at the back of the stage. It is refreshing to see the musicians, rather than having them banished to the depths of the orchestra pit, and it of course allows the actors to occupy the entirety of the stage’s apron and get closer to the audience. Under the musical direction of Luke Robbins-Ross, the band performs strongly, but again the use of electronic instruments provides yet another challenge to the technical team.
First nights are rarely perfect, and this was no exception. It is brave to attempt a show of this technical complexity after just two days of preparation in the Assembly Rooms itself, and I wonder if DULOG made the right decision in having their opening night so early in the week. Still, I’m liable to forgive the odd lost line, moment of feedback, or faulty projection, and trust that these will improve over the course of the show’s run.
DULOG’s RENT is very nearly great: the performances are superb, the stage is looking better than I can remember it, and the show has more energy than Tigger on ProPlus. Will they pull the remaining strands together for the upcoming shows? I may just have to pop back later in the week to find out – it is a sacrifice I am very willing to make.
8 March 2012