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BWW Review: RENT, Hope Mill Theatre

Six Queens Millie O'Connell and Maiya Quansah-Breed star in this revival of the hit rock music

BWW Review: RENT, Hope Mill Theatre

BWW Review: RENT, Hope Mill Theatre"How do you measure a year?" For sure, this is something we will be asking ourselves over the coming weeks as 2020, the year that never was quite what we expected, draws to a close.

For Hope Mill Theatre, their highly anticipated revival of Jonathan Larson's seminal rock musical of the nineties was disrupted not once, but twice due to COVID. Rent originally ran for 12 years on Broadway and, famously, its composer tragically died hours before its first readthrough.

Originally programmed for Hope Mill's summer season, their rescheduled November-December run was cruelly cut short after only five performances when restrictions tightened again across England.

Thankfully, the production team were wise to this risk and had the last show beautifully captured on film by The Umbrella Rooms videography team. This is a review of that recorded performance, directed by Luke Sheppard.

Fresh layers can be found in any show when viewed through a new lens, particularly a post-COVID one - especially when the show has a virus of a different sort at its centre. In Rent, we follow the lives of a community of New York artists during the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, loosely based on Puccini's 1896 opera, La Bohème.

The fact that HIV/AIDS have never been cured should starkly remind us of how relatively lucky we are, horrific as both diseases are. We can see a potential way out of this current health crisis via multiple vaccine options within a year of the COVID-19 pandemic first being declared. Lyrics such as, "How can you connect in an age when strangers, landlords, lovers, your own blood cells betray?", really do jump out at you in a new way.

The casting is spot-on: Tom Francis' Roger is suitably rugged and haunted opposite Maiya Quansah-Breed's surprisingly funny Mimi. Alex Thomas Smith's Angel gracefully glides through the show. Millie O'Connell's Maureen is delightfully bonkers, and Jocasta Almgill is fierce as Joanne.

Blake Patrick Anderson shines as Mark, the perpetually frustrated filmmaker. Ahmed Hamad as Benny is as cold and heartless as his acquired riches, and quite frankly, Dom Hartley-Harris, who plays Collins, could sing me my shopping list any day.

Kayla Carter, Allie Daniel, Isaac Hesketh and Bethany Terry steal many moments as the "Christmas Bells" quartet and other roles. Carter and Daniel's featured solos in "Seasons of Love" are lapped up by the audience.

The lighting design by Howard Hudson is just sublime, expertly picking out "blink-and-you'll-miss-them" moments in the fast-moving "La Vie Bohème" sequences. David Woodhead's set and costume design are suitably raw and grungy.

Tom Jackson Greave's choreography is some of the most expressive I've ever seen in a production of Rent, creating powerful and tender moments throughout. A particularly inspired piece of direction was enclosing Mark and Joanne in a boxing ring made of sound equipment during "The Tango Maureen".

A couple of "out-of-body experience" sequences later on in the show (not to give spoilers) don't fully work, for me personally. That said, every moment in the show has clearly been carefully considered.

The band nails every tempo and transition of Larson's electric score. Unfortunately, the elements on stage and in the pit did not quite line up perfectly during "Without You". However, there are plenty of other dazzling moments to make up for that minor wobble.

Those lucky enough to be in the room for the few live performances of this production have bragging rights for life. For those who are word perfect or watching Rent for the first time, this version certainly does the material justice.

Rent at the Hope Mill Theatre is available to view online until 20 December

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

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