We’ve got room For Rent

Art & Lit Stage

Everything about this rehearsal is a little impromptu.

After a forty-five minute wait, everybody has turned up, warmed up, and found their scripts. They can begin.

Until then, OxStu catches a word with the director, Adam Baghdadi. This is Baghdadi’s first time directing at Oxford, and few would choose an eighteen-man musical about HIV and homelessness for their debut.

Even Baghdadi himself doesn’t seem too sure why. “It just jumped out at me. The style of music didn’t immediately appeal, but when the songs get into your head, it’s impossible to get them out.” So far, he’s resisted the tendency to relocate this modern classic. (The most recent attempt, Rent Remixed in the West End, garnered a string of hideous reviews.)

“That would be impossible; Rent is very much a time- and space- located piece.” He does add, however, that the theme of struggling young artists is “something we can all relate to.”

Not quite so struggling, perhaps: The rehearsal takes place at New College, after all, in one of their larger stone-walled rooms, surrounded by some rather exquisite pieces of student art. New York slums it ain’t.

Of course, this doesn’t really matter. Rent isn’t a musical one should necessarily relate to. Aside from the set – a sparse table strewn with old Domino’s boxes – the comparisons with modern student life are few.

Roger, an HIV-positive ex-junkie, and Mark, the hard-up documentary film-maker, are on the verge of being thrown out.

Their friends, a group of fellow drug addicts, lesbians, anarchists and drag queens, worship la vie boheme, or “leather, dildoes, and curry vindaloo,” as one of the more bizarre quotes has it.

This is a musical about youth, sex and breaking conventions, a world in which dreams coexist with dependency, poverty and even death. No wonder it broke so many taboos when it was first staged in the 1990s. And, of course, the script is superb.

Larson’s more jaunty numbers may not be to every theatregoer’s taste, but there is an indisputable energy and brilliance to the play, which even the most with dependency, poverty and even death. No wonder it broke so many taboos when it was first staged in the 1990s.

And, of course, the script is superb. Larson’s more jaunty numbers may not be to every theatregoer’s taste, but there is an indisputable energy and brilliance to the play, which even the most ham-fisted director would struggle to dull.

Even after a gruelling day-long rehearsal, the actors are hoarse but game for more. Missed cues, cuts and slip-ups are waved away with smiles.

Some of the better solos are met with applause and cheering.

Nick Pritchard, Rent’s music director, has done a great job with good talent here. What some actors lack in acting ability, they make up for with powerful singing. Some have both.

Of the scenes I saw, James Carroll (Mark) exuded confident humour; and the lesbian couple (Emily Gill-Heginbotham and Ed Pearce) gave an outstandingly gutsy, aggressive performance. The strength of the cast definitely lies in the ensembles, which are wall-shakingly great.

The first act was messy. There are many loose ends which need tying up, lines which need learning, characters which need work. (Roger, in particular, seemed alarmingly apathetic about being diagnosed HIV-positive.)

But these moments are countered by some genuine moments of sheer, gritty energy. Toeing the line between silly and slick, with a little more work, Rent will most definitely make the cut.