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RENT (Susan Elkin reviews)

Music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
society/company: Cambridge Theatre Company
performance date: 13 Jul 2019
venue: Great Hall at the Leys
The talented, accomplished cast and highly proficient five-piece band (MD James Harvey) work their socks off in this production. It’s just a pity that the material they have to work with is so poor. Rent, loosely based on La Boheme but set in Aids-anxious, drug-ridden 1980s New York, is episodic, incoherent, bitty and drawn out. The show doesn’t achieve anything remotely like lift-off until half way through the second act. And I stress, the fault lies entirely in the piece itself rather than with director (Emily Starr) or any of the performers.

I liked the visible positioning of the band at stage right and the sound (designed by Nick Hall) is dynamic and effective. There are also some evocative lighting effects thanks to John Moore’s design.

Rent is an ensemble piece and one of the few commendable things to emerge from Jonathan Larson’s book, music and lyrics is the number of opportunities for individuals to emerge from the ranks for solo spots. The choral singing is slick and tight especially in Will I Lose My Dignity? The use of sung telephone calls on an upstage scaffold balcony is quite fun too although it’s a bit overdone.

Amongst the principals there’s an outstanding, show-stopping performance from Laura Saunders as Maureen. Her account of drinking milk direct from a cow’s udder is quite a moment. Emma Vieceli gives a convincing performance as her girlfriend, the Harvard-educated Joanne. The two are complete contrast and they play well off each other. Kevin Bell brings plenty of musical gravitas to Collins and Lucy Farrow is strong as the dying Mimi.

Yes, there’s plenty to admire here but overall, as a piece of theatre, it’s a disappointing experience. At the matinee performance I saw The Great Hall at The Leys was barely a quarter full. I hope very sincerely that they attracted better houses for other performances or maybe the regular local Cambridge Theatre Company audience knew more about Rent than I did.

I have high hopes, however, for Chicago and Hairspray later in the year because both are fine shows and CTC has the potential to do something very enjoyable with them.

 First published by Sardines:
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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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