Thursday, 11 June 2009

Rent - The Customs House, South Sheilds

Music & Lyrics: Jonathan Larson
Director:Gareth Hunter
Choreographer:Nadia Wearn
Reviewer: Ian Cain

‘Rent’ is set during the very real recent history of New York. During the 1980s spiralling rent increases in Alphabet City created heated protests that culminated in rioting. The bohemian residents of Alphabet City, a poor and notoriously dangerous neighbourhood, united with the homeless to protest at the loss of their housing.

Jonathan Larson was 29 when he started work on ‘Rent’ and his aim was to write a musical that really reflected the world that he lived in. His two major storylines - the impact of AIDS and the Rent riots in Alphabet City – reflect directly the lives of himself and his friends. Every character in ‘Rent’ is based on someone that Larson knew. Tragically, Jonathan Larson died of a rare genetic disease after attending a dress rehearsal of the original version.

The story follows a year – or, more as the song goes, 525,600 minutes - in the lives of seven friends struggling to express themselves through their art and striving for success, acceptance and a sense of community while enduring the obstacles of poverty, jealousy, sexual identity and the AIDS epidemic.Beginning on Christmas Eve, the friends progress through the seasons, eventually turning full circle, as they take stock the following Christmas.

The narrator and main protagonist is Mark (Jordan Branthwaite), an unfulfilled film-maker struggling with self-belief. He shares a flat on the Lower East Side with Roger (Jonathan Bell), an angry rock musician who believes he is living on borrowed time because he is HIV positive and is desperate to write one hit song before his time is up.

The apartment is owned by Benny (Steven Stobbs), a former room-mate who has married into money and has plans to build a cyber-arts studio on the site of the neighbouring tent-city. However, Maureen (Alice Brown), Marks ex-girlfriend, plans a midnight protest performance. This leads to Benny issuing Mark and Roger with an ultimatum; either convince Maureen to cancel the protest or pay their last year’s rent.

Gareth Hunter has assembled a young and extremely talented cast and each of them deliver amazingly energetic performances that are full of youthful exuberance. Nadia Wearn’s impressive choreography makes demands from the cast that, at times, seem almost physically impossible.

There are some fantastic performances, most notably from Jade Thirlwall as Mimi, a Latino wildchild and nightclub dancer with a dangerous susceptibility to heroin; Andrew McKay as Angel, a transvestite ‘guardian angel’ and Amber Glover as Joanne, a yuppie civil liberties lawyer and Maureen’s new girlfriend.

‘Rent’ is undoubtedly one of the darkest musicals that you are likely to see, but it is also an uplifting story of hope that makes a bold and gritty statement about modern life.

‘Rent’ runs at The Customs House, South Shields until Saturday 13th June 2009.
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