Rent has me a bit torn. Flawed, idealistic to the point of irritation and more 90s than a barrel full of furbies, at times it was tough to figure out why the show is so deeply embedded in the psyche of theatre-kids worldwide. Yet, just when you thought you have had enough, the show bursts in brilliance, breaking your heart into five hundred twenty five thousand, six hundred pieces. While the recent Just So Byre production had its issues, it is hard to deny the moments of pure emotion that tent-poled the show.
Let’s start with the more problematic areas of the show. As with any production in St Andrews, there was an issue of racial diversity – more pronounced due to Rent’s setting in 1990s New York. This wasn’t a massive textual issue, as other than the characters of Mimi and her mother, who are implied to be be LatinX, no other characters seem to be explicitly coded as one race or another. Thematically, in a show about marginalised groups suffering from the AIDS virus in New York, having a majority white cast seems to run contrary to the spirit of the show, especially considering how disproportionately hard the black community was hit by the disease. The end result is New York by way of Friends. I like Friends, Friends is a great show, I watch it anytime I’m near a sofa – but Friends is about yuppies, not starving, HIV positive artists. I’m sure there was no negative intent here, and Rent was more diverse than quite a few productions in St Andrews – but in a show that is all about social realism, this did detract from the experience.
There were a few other issues here and there. Audio levels ranged from way too loud to way too quiet, meaning I could not hear some of the lines of minor characters. The choreography occasionally underwhelmed, with characters sometimes just singing at each other, when all I really wanted them to do was dance. The musical itself fares less well in the new millennium than I’m sure it played back in the nineties. In the era of gentrification, the idea that these artists should be allowed to live in their friend’s building Rent free whilst constantly insulting him is laughable.
And yet – for all that, I woke up the next day singing Rent. Two days later, I’ve found myself thinking more about it than I have any other show this semester. The singing was desperate and sad and life affirmingly joyous all at the same time. Lucy Bishop’s (playing Joanne) voice in Season’s of Love caught right in my chest and stayed there for the rest of the night. Miles Hurley and Anoushka Kohli had real chemistry on stage as Roger and Mimi. Andrew Mundy brought a heart-aching loneliness to Mark that should be applauded. The cast’s rendition of La Vie Boheme, for a brief five minutes, made me understand. Made me understand why they hated Benny (Ryan Hay), why someone would choose to starve in a freezing loft in New York, because dammit, it made music like this, testaments to being young and alive.
If I haven’t mentioned Jonathan Hewitt and Christopher Miller as Collins and Angel yet, forgive me – you have to save the best for last. They didn’t make me cry. They made me bawl.
So Rent had its problems. Tommy Rowe and his team took a gamble. Did it all pay off? No. But when it did – when it did pay off? It made my heart sing – even if just for a second.
(Photo Credit: Fiona Yelland)