BWW Review: RENT PARTY, Crucible Studio, Sheffield
Rent Party is part-performance, part-party. Paying homage to the rent parties that originated in 1920s Harlem (where performers would do turns in order to raise funds for the rent), the audience is asked to dish out £80 of rent vouchers each in tips for the performers they deem most deserving.
In between dances and songs, the five stars tell their stories - based on their real experiences. The most affecting of these comes from Jason Guest. Before the doors open, Jason is rollerskating around in a futuristic cage-like dress, with vampy red lipstick and lashes to die for. But the tall, powerful presence that can command a room also houses deep vulnerability and a chilling story of experiencing domestic abuse.
The evening is compered by Stuart Bowden, cheeky, camp and super charismatic - the attention-seeking centre around which everything and everyone else revolves. Lenai Russell dances with fantastic ferocity whilst Kamille Gordon is the best undiscovered diva out there. She wants to be Dolores Van Cartier in Sister Act and I wouldn't bet against her. AJ Leroy, a laidback, tap-dancing pianist with big dreams, rounds off the quintet.
Audience participation is a big part of the party, with various volunteers limboing around or being chosen as the punchlines to gags. A pre-show dance workshop is followed up by a communal boogie towards the end where people can show off what they've learned, before everyone decamps to the show bar for 2-for-1 cocktails.
The show (directed and co-written by Darren Pritchard and Cheryl Martin) is a lot of fun, and all five performers are incredibly talented and very watchable. The problem is that it's trying to marry together too many things - there's plenty of social commentary on poverty dropped in through comments and jokes, but it doesn't necessarily marry that well with the stories of the performers, which deal much more powerfully with experiences of ambition, expectation, family, relationships and race.
The gimmick of the rent vouchers, whilst a good concept, is confusing in its deployment, with some performers collecting multiple times and others not at all (and it doesn't pay off in any kind of final climax). The show began late and finished nearly half an hour after it should have - fine for me, but this could be a problem for some.
The ending is unclear, with many members of the audience confusingly trying to figure out what was happening and if the show had finished. The idea is that people would dance down on the studio floor, then boogie on out to the foyer and 'party', but this wasn't really communicated.
A performance or some sort of denouement in the foyer space could both provide a clearer sense of an ending and enhance the idea of the party going on after the show, avoiding a lot of puzzled faces.
Although it's a little muddled in the execution, there is lots to enjoy here. As well as the five hugely talented performers, the audience participation worked well, the music was well chosen and arranged (with some beautiful harmonies) and the costumes and styling were striking.
Perhaps the best way to enjoy the show is to leave the car at home, grab some friends and a few cocktails, go to the pre-show dance workshops, and get into the party spirit.
Rent Party is at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield until 23 December. There are pre-show dance workshops an hour before the performance starts.
Photo by Sam Taylor