Inspired by Puccini's La bohème, Larson's musical transposed the plot to early 1990s New York where a community of East End squatters battle to fulfil their aspirations against the reality of rent demands and AIDS. The death of the 35-year-old creator and composer from an aortic aneurysm shortly after the final dress rehearsal of Rent's debut transformed the musical into a cause celebre in New York, where it’s still running.
Rent received its West End premiere at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 12 May 1998 and closed on 30 October 1999 after a run of 18 months. It has since toured the UK extensively and had two limited West End return seasons, the last in 2005/6 when supermodel Caprice starred (See News, 18 Nov 2002).
Baker’s new production is designed by Mark Bailey, with musical supervision by fellow Kylie collaborator Steve Anderson. The cast is headlined by Denise Van Outen (pictured) as Maureen and former Sugababe Siobhan Donaghy as Mimi, joined by Luke Evans (as Roger), Oliver Thornton (Mark) and Jay Webb (Angel).
Overnight critics deemed Baker’s new version more “reduced” than “remixed”, and by and large “strangely disappointing” - though some felt the failure was partly due to the exposure of weaknesses in Larson’s original material. One of the biggest complaints related to Bailey’s “Manhattan chic” design that bore no relation to the poverty the characters refer to. As for the cast, while there were nods to the “cute” Luke Evans, the “adorable” Jay Webb and the “hilarious” Denise Van Outen and appreciation for the “strong” singing, critics found the acting inadequate and unable to cover up what was essentially “a flawed product stylishly repackaged”.
- by Tom Atkins