With Rent being my all-time favourite musical, I did not know what to expect tonight in Wakefield College’s performance of the rock-opera. I was pleased the musical theatre students were taking on such a powerful, contemporary musical but also anxious about challenge of the show, with the mature subjects and themes within the narrative. The Mechanic’s Theatre provided the perfect performance space for the minimalistic set design and intimate atmosphere. The set design matched the original Broadway stage design, with scaffolding and graffiti suiting the 1980s New York City setting. However, this isn’t the glitzy and glamourous New York we often see within musicals, Rent is set in the bohemian fuelled East Village, and follows the struggles that regular people go through behind the charm of Times Square.
Jonathan Larson’s Rent is loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème as it follows the story of a group of artists trying to create a life and career in the famous city. The bustling setting and glimpses of new love are shadowed throughout the whole show by the looming theme of HIV/AIDS, as the show documents the outbreak of the disease during the 80s. The musical perfectly captures the balance of this serious theme whilst showing the carefree, anarchist lifestyle of these artists within the lighter hearted moments. Rent’s overall message is possibly the most powerful element of the show, and is why I care for it so dearly; ‘No Day but Today’ is a positive motto to live by and the students in tonight’s cast successfully communicated this to the audience, making them laugh, cry and most importantly, empathise.
One performer who consistently stole my attention was Luke Wilby in his role of Tom Collins. This is a difficult role to take on, due to the contrast in comedic and emotional scenes he is involved in. Wilby was equally as captivating in both of these moments, with his tender moments with Angel (Lewis Lockwood) leaving a lasting impression on the audience. Even during the large choral numbers, such as the famous ‘La Vie Bohème’, Wilby stood out to me with his facial expressions and exaggerated reactions to the chaos around him, a truly excellent performance. Bryony Duncan also shone in her role of the troublemaker, Maureen. Duncan had the audience laughing from the minute she entered the stage for the first time, yet managed to play the more vulnerable and needy side to the role later on in the more touching moments. As a huge fan of Rent I have seen the famous Over the Moon monologue a number of times, yet Duncan managed to take it to a whole new level and provided a new layer of sarcasm and mockery. I believe this was the most captivating performance of the monologue I have ever seen, including the performance I saw on Broadway.
The cast of young musical theatre students handled the mature content with the upmost respect, which is commendable. Accompanying their level of respect was their level of talent, which was stretched and challenged during this rock-opera, with the show having a complete musical score. Jake Thompson provided the narration in his role of Mark and his powerful voice supported the powerful message he was conveying, in that life should be for living, not judgement. I was pleased how the directors (Emma Bolland and Paul-Dale Vickers) managed to compliment the original production with the bohemian costumes and stage design. Such a raw and taboo subject could’ve been lost in pristine dance routines and elaborate staging, but this production matched the original performance intentions extremely well. Craig Lomas managed to mark key moments and cross cutting elements within the complicated chorus numbers through his lighting design, as the audience’s attention was directed where it was intended at every important moment.
Upon reflection on my drive home, it seemed almost cheating to review this production as an amateur production as the entire performance emitted professionality and experience. At moments there were some unfortunate technical difficulties, but the cast didn’t show any frustration or panic as they continued with complete commitment, which is a credit to the college for excellent training.
I wish them every luck in the remainder of their performances, the electric atmosphere and standing ovation was well deserved and I left truly impressed with the students I had seen on stage.
Reviewed: 11th May 2016
Reviewer: Christine-Jane Parkes