The young, unpaid cast has a sense of urgency as they adopt the characters loosely inspired by Puccini’s La Boheme. As they swarm around the set there is always something to look at, although the stage occasionally becomes slightly too busy.
Tori Allen-Martin’s Mimi looks too healthy – with her glowing skin and voluptuous figure it is hard to believe her as the starving, HIV-positive addict, but she brings an assertive sassiness to the role, effortlessly flipping between tigress and kitten. She, along with Will Bradnam as Mark, updates Jonathon Larson’s 1996 score with more contemporary riffs and runs. Larson’s music is the heart of the piece, but his intricate lyrical genius is sometimes thrown away due to poor sound quality and the performers having to compete with an overly-amped band.
Sabrina Aloueche (Les Miserables, We Will Rock You) gives a powerhouse vocal performance as diva Maureen and Ambra Caserotti is hilarious as bitter lesbian lover Joanne. John McCrea’s Angel is loveable and waif-like.
There was more potential for the talented dancers in the cast to show off than Kamilah Beckles’ choreography allowed. It was only in Angel’s hallucination, the abstract, atmospheric "Contact" that the skills of Beckles and the dancers were put to full use through conceptually electric choreography. Likewise, with Ni Ni Wen’s artistic, fragmented projections, there could have been more of them and often they came up too faint as a result of the relatively bright house lighting.
Drug abuse, poverty and homelessness are thrust right into our faces, and it’s powerful. When one beggar asks an audience member for money he threateningly lingers for a second too long; this urgent production is forcing us to address these issues here and now. The same effect is produced by the staging as audience members are forced to look at each other across the thrust stage, observing each other’s reactions to the controversial material.
We are part of the action. We stop and evaluate ourselves as Mark confronts us with the video camera he’s used to narrate the action thus far, whizzing it around the audience – do we need to take a look at our attitudes towards these very real issues? This audience inclusion will no doubt be more pronounced at the gala performance in aid of the National Aids Trust on 28 October. The line between actors and audience is blurred at Maureen’s performance and Angel’s funeral as the actors become an extended audience in front of us. For two and a half hours the Cockpit is a bubble containing engaging performances and issues - there’s only us; there’s only this.