I was unfortunate enough to see Bruce Guthrie’s 20th anniversary production of Rent, at the Festival Theatre in 2017. So poorly staged and, in my view, performed, that my wife and I left at the interval. (It is a long first act right enough). So when I heard B2 Productions was staging the show it wasn’t my ‘news of the year’.
Nevertheless, I went to see it on Saturday afternoon having photographed it on the Dress/Tech rehearsal night.
That combination, and being behind a camera, didn’t really give me a sense of what a show, this production, was REALLY going to be like and so my prejudice remained in place as the curtain proverbially rose.
I needn’t have worried.
The show is a bit of a period piece, set in Alphabet City, in New York’s Lower East side, and centres on a group of ‘squatters” certainly they are rent evaders, although they remain connected to, if not best friends with, their apartment owner, an ex student friend turned property-owning tycoon. He’s changed.
The flat is a hang out for a bunch of entertainers and would be’s that variously date as boy to boy, girl to girl, boy to girl and, I’m sure if written today, would have numerous other configurations.
Critically it’s the tale of one year, Christmas to Christmas, at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the mid 1980’s, and numerous cast members have various degrees of affliction of the dreaded disease.
Coming togethers and breaking ups proliferate over the two hours of the show with a wall to wall score that gives everyone in the ensemble cast a chance to shine – and by God do they do that. I counted eleven soloists among the cast, each of whom performed miracles with a libretto that is in places quite thin but that adds up, when performed as well as this, to far more than the sum of its parts.
Before I talk about any of the cast, and the incredible band, I need to put this in perspective.
The venue, Leith Theatre, is golden. It’s an emotional experience just walking through the front door, never mind having the chance to perform on its treasured boards. It’s an iconic place. Everything about it is anti the establishment. It’s not Edinburgh. It’s not funded or cared for by our government. It’s a community project of monumental scale. It needs to be supported. B2Productions is part of that.
The next thing is THE RENT SIGN. It was created by Craig Robertson, but I believe Black Light need considerable thanks too. It dominates the proscenium arch and is a constant reminder of what we are watching, but also it’s the centre-piece for the stunning lighting design by Grant Anderson.
It’s a visual triumph.
So, to the cast, who could do nothing without the direction of Claire Stewart, the movement of Natasha Rose and the magisterial musical direction of Kerry-Anne Dougan.
The performance I attended brought my fellow audience member to a sobbing wreck during Act II’s I’ll Cover You by Charlie West. Extraordinary.
Sarah Innes, Ronan Rafferty, Hayley Scott, and Daniel Umpleby (an amazing Angel) and Ben King all make this a truly great musical appreciation. But may I just mention a few others?
The duet between Mark Smith and Mellisa Jay blew my mind.
Eilidh West showed amazing emotional range.
And to finish off, our guide through this kind of emotional wreck was the understated. but constantly engaging, Gregor Robertson. A beautiful performance that, for me, finally smashed it in ‘What you own‘ – a rage against America. It could be now.
I’m biased – of course I am. But I honestly disliked the professional performance of this (above) so much that I couldn’t see it out.
This, I couldn’t approve of more.