One might think that Rent, a musical primarily about AIDs victims and starving artists in ‘90s New York City, is a drama worlds away from the dreaming spires. Yet after witnessing this world recreated on Wednesday night at the Oxford Playhouse, audience members streamed out, excitedly discussing its passion and energy.
I had high expectations; Rent has the type of soundtrack to which you can’t just sit still and listen, you have to get up and dance and sing and lip-synch around your room every time it comes on – at least, I do! The trouble is these songs require great technical skill and range, frequently demanding the infamous musical theatre ‘belt’, before suddenly lapsing into soft, deeply moving numbers – but this particular cast mostly had this down to a tee.
Ed Addison’s gender-blind choreography makes clear nobody is a ‘token’ character. Kitty Murdoch and Annabel Reed as the tempestuous pairing of Maureen and Joanne were particularly spectacular; vocal acrobatics and incredible stage presence combined, producing an electrifying performance of Take Me or Leave Me. Reed was again excellent in the comedic Tango Maureen, together with Conor Diamond as Mark. From this song onwards I was thoroughly convinced of his fly-on-the-wall character, after a rather self-conscious performance in the first five minutes.
Isaac Calvin was completely believable as conflicted musician Roger – and what a beautiful voice. I’d never really paid attention to One Song Glory before, but he sang this solo with such poignancy – a highlight of the first half. Eleanor Shaw delivered some equally touching solos throughout, with many lovely vocal moments. I absolutely loved Christian Bevan as Collins; he led Santa Fe superbly, and his desperate yet controlled rendition of I’ll Cover You (Reprise) had me close to tears.
Angel, an incredibly difficult part, was brought to life with soulful energy by Alexander Wickens. It was a real shame that the microphones cut out his last solo moment. In fact, the constant problem with the mics, in the first half especially, was the only thing that let this production down.
The ensemble were brilliant, and you could hear some beautiful solo moments – but although I was sitting at front of the stalls, I could only just hear some lovely singing from Daniel Virga. Even when the mics were working, the band (who nonetheless did a great job) were turned up way too high. These issues caused some crucial lyrics to be lost in Take Me Out Tonight, and some of La Vie Boheme’s energy to be missed.
That said, I’m sure director Georgia Figgis is fully aware of these problems, and hopefully they’ll be resolved for the rest of the run. Figgis should really be proud of the spectacular achievement she has pulled off, particularly with the emphasis on the tricky subject of AIDs, which I know was a key element of the show for her. Will I, the ensemble number centred around the effects of this disease, was truly beautiful. She has coached the most out of the actors as well, with every part being made the most of; Gwenno Jones as Mark’s mother was a particular comic hit for the audience.
Overall, this production only gets better as it continues; oddly, the actors seem more comfortable with the tricky emotional parts than the more light-hearted introductory bits; the first half is good, but the second half is excellent, packed with emotion and some beautiful singing from everyone. If the sound problems are sorted, this will be a revelatory night out for anyone who hasn’t seen Rent, and an absorbing, entertaining one for anyone who has.
Image // Nathan Stazicker