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BWW Review: RENT, St James Theatre

Twenty years after it first premiered Off Broadway, Jonathan Larson's iconic musical Rent has made a much anticipated return to the London stage. Following a group of artists living in New York City's East Village in the 1990s, struggling to pay the bills, maintain their relationships and friendships, and a number of them dealing with their HIV diagnosis, it is often wondered if audiences will still connect with the tribulations the characters go through. However the themes of loss, community, friendship and love are as prominent now as they were over two decades ago.

Director Bruce Guthrie makes the most of the 15 triple-threat performers who make up the cast, with the audience roaring their approval after every song. The actors are expertly able to take the story from heart-wrenching to comedic, including the ensemble who are magnificent as they transform into a variety of different characters.

Choreographer Lee Proud has made the most of the small space at the St James Theatre, with the dancing both impressive and expressive, while Layton Williams as drag artist Angel outshines everyone, performing backflips and jumping into the splits, all while dressed in skin-tight outfits and high heels.

Lucie Jones does a fantastic job as Maureen, not an easy feat when Idina Menzel is your well-known predecessor! Along with Shanay Holmes as her lover Joanne, the two spend their time fighting due to Maureen's diva-like attitude and then making up moments later.

And not only is Williams a force to be reckoned with on the dancefloor, he brings jaw-dropping energy to the role of Angel; the audience is able to feel his pain when his health suddenly declines. Ryan O'Gorman as Collins is hard to watch as he grieves over the death of his lover, while Ross Hunter as Roger breaks down when he thinks he's lost Mimi (Philippa Stefani) forever.

The set, designed by Anna Fleischle, is made up of rusty scaffolding, wire fences, ladders and neon lights, easily transporting the audience from New York streets to threadbare living rooms, grimy bedrooms and a local café. The cast make brilliant use of the moveable scaffolding during several songs, particularly Stefani as Mimi Marques during her solo "Out Tonight".

Rent is without a doubt a powerful and moving production, and with the entire London run sold out, it clearly has a special place in people's hearts. Breathtaking performances from the entire cast make this production one that Larson would surely be proud of.

Rent The Musical at St James Theatre until 29 January, 2017

Photo Credit: Matt Crockett

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