Rent at the Shaftesbury Theatre

Note: The cast for this production has changed since the writing of this review. For current cast details, please see the listing entry. If you have seen the current cast and would like to send in your comments for posting on this page, please email us.

This will probably make me very unpopular, but Rent is long overdue for some criticism. Having swallowed all the hype that has preceded the Broadway musical to these shores, I found myself regurgitating in the stalls at the Shaftesbury Theatre. What on earth is all the excitement about?

If Rent is to speak for a generation, then this is one of the most whingeing, self-obsessed generations ever. Let s take for a start the cause célèbre of the characters and the basis of the title. Are they protesting against some slumlord who s trying to price them out of their low-rent apartments? Heavens no. These are squatters who ve never paid a dollar for housing and are outraged when asked to do so. Why should we feel sympathy for them when they, Ivy League-educated children of middle class parents, are perfectly capable of paying their own way? At least in Hair, the Rent of the 1960s, they had a war to protest against.

For this group of generation X-ers, getting a job, rather than submitting to the draft, is the equivalent of “selling your soul”. Better to slum it for ‘art - though none produces much, in spite of Roger s (Adam Pascal) year-long tinkering on a single song - stage mooing protests and embrace ‘la vie bohème . At one point, even the play seems aware of just how offensive these people can be. A real homeless woman accuses wannabe film-maker Mark (Anthony Rapp) of “trying to use me to kill your guilt”as he focuses his camera on her.

Rent should be applauded for staging the plight of Aids sufferers, but even here our sympathies for characters are quashed beneath the enormity of the ‘cause . The death of transvestite Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), so subtly named, should have been heart-rending, but where was the emotional lead up to this?

On the plus side, this production does feature some very lithe and energetic performers. Heredia, flirting with anything that moves in Act One, looks great prancing around in her Santa suit, and Krysten Cummings addicted Mimi wriggles with acrobatic ease around the stage s props. The score, though discordant in many of its operatic segueways, also boasts some nice numbers - such as the aching “One Song Glory”, “Goodbye Love” and the company-rousing “Seasons of Love”.

But the performers best efforts still don t make us really care about them or their situation. Rent's view of New York seedy is as filtered as the answering machine messages from the characters parents. Certainly, it lacks the raw desperation of say Mark Ravenhill s view of London seedy in Shopping and F***ing. Ultimately, Rent may prove just too self-absorbed and American to win over British audiences.

Terri Paddock, May 1998

The following reader disagreed with the above review....

Your review asks what the excitement is all about with regards to Rent. I had to laugh when I read this. I will explain why I and many other people really love this show. It is so many wonderful moments of explosive excitement down to quieter moments of beauty. It is different in that it does not feature obvious heroes and villains. The heroes to some people will be the villains to others. You demonstrated this yourself by sympathising more with the character of Benny than that of Mark. Some of the audience would not relate to Angel but understand Roger or Mark more.

The music is very varied, something not stated enough in any review that I have read. There is everything from rock, tango, rap and soul. I have seen the London production twice, and both times I have been surrounded by people who really appreciated the emotion generated by the show. Both times I have been surrounded by men and women in tears when the reprise of 'I'll Cover You' is sung when Angel dies.

Critics cannot have things both ways. They complain that there is no emotional build up to Angel's death, but when emotion is sought they condemn it as being sentimental.

Like everything, theatre is a case of personal choice and opinion. But if you see the show when it is not packed with critics, I am sure you will see that most people do find emotion in the characters and situation.

Lee Wilson, May 1998

A fellow WOS reviewer offers a treatise on 'why I love Rent'....

I saw the Broadway production of Jonathan Larson's Rent last Christmas. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it changed my life but, like the best theatre, it did make me look at the world with new eyes. The next day, I bought the soundtrack. In the past six months, that CD has been played probably more than any other in my collection.

It was with some trepidation that I went to see the show again in London. Would the London production live up to my memory of the New York one? I knew the characters so well by now, that I feared in case the new actors failed to do them justice.

My fears were soon allayed - not least because four of the London cast were the first incarnations of the characters on Broadway. The impact of this extraordinary show remains. Far from any sense of disappointment, I was reminded of the many reasons why for me Rent delivers one of the most rich and satisfying evenings at the theatre.

You have to start with the ambitiousness of the whole project, and the way that ambition is fulfilled. Here is a sung-through musical with eight major characters and a web of relationships as complex as any soap-opera. And yet, you quickly get the picture of who's done what to whom. You also get an exemplary depth of characterisation.

There's a further ambitiousness and bravery in the characters themselves. Just consider the three central relationships depicted in Rent; there's Roger and Mimi, a heterosexual couple; there's Maureen and Joanne, lesbians; and then there's Collins - a gay man - and Angel - a drag queen. Oh and by the way, each of these relationships is interracial. Importantly, each of the relationships are given equal prominence in the piece. Rent is utterly contemporary, from the detail of media-whore Alexi Darling's phone messages to the sweeping questioning of how you make your life count for something.

Rent has an incredible range of songs. Perhaps Larson's signatures are numbers, like 'Rent' and 'What You Own', with melodies like Catherine Wheels that burn prettily before exploding into a new level of intensity, sending shivers down your spine. My favourite Rent song, 'Without You', moves quite differently; a slow, spare, unremitting tune with few rhymes. Then again, there's the lush 'I'll Cover You', with a tune and lyrics as sweet as Disney, and, conversely the pin-sharp 'Take Me or Leave Me'.

Larson's ideas and lyrics are so damn clever. Take 'Tango: Maureen', where Mark meets his ex-girlfriend's lesbian lover and dances a tango with her as they brood on the 'dark, dizzy merry-go-round' that is life with Maureen. And what about 'Seasons of Love', in which Larson equates a year to 'Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes' and asks how best to measure it. 'In daylights? In sunsets? In midnights? In cups of coffee?'

As these last lyrics suggest, Rent is deeply romantic. There is romance in every pore of the piece, from the moment Angel tells Collins 'I've been hearing violins all night' to the understated, spoken close to Act One when Mark tells us that 'The snow dances. Oblivious, Mimi and Roger exchange a small, lovely kiss.' And, of course, at the heart of the show are two tragic romances, each threatened by the shadow of AIDS.

The staging is just brilliant. Like London's other bravura musical Chicago, we have a simple, unchanging set and the band on-stage. From the beginning, where the cast wander out with the house-lights up to fill the spare stage, you know you're in for something different. The costumes perfectly depict the characters - from the scrawny, struggling bohemian garb of Mark and Roger to the sprayed-on fit of Mimi's club-wear.

Finally, we come to the performances. The four Broadway imports - Adam Pascal as Roger, Anthony Rapp as Mark, Jesse L. Martin as Tom Collins and Wilson Jermaine Heredia as Angel - are faultless. These actors have so internalised their characters that you lose any sense that they are remembering lines or notes; it's as if you were just watching them live. As for the newer recruits, Jessica Tezier (Maureen) is sexy and funny; she and Jacqui Dubois (Joanne) play nicely off each other. Krysten Cummings brings tremendous raunch, vocal power and gymnastics to her depiction of Mimi, but lacks her character's essential frailty.

The three words which recur when describing Rent are ambitious, clever and emotional. I suspect that it's your reaction to the emotional that will decide whether you love or hate this show. I'm certainly no fan of cheap sentiment - indeed my favourite musicals are the most bitter ones like Sondheim's Company and Kander and Ebb's Chicago - but Jonathan Larson does not traffic with cheap sentiment. Rent delivers deep, raw, real emotions.

In so many of the songs, the performers appear to be summoning the words and feelings from deep within their guts. That's where the writing comes from too. Rent is brave and honest and, for me, deeply affecting. I wholeheartedly recommend it to you.

Justin Somper, May 1998

And this reader also gave a positive review...

For the last few months, Rent has been steadily cruising its way to London on a sea of unrivalled media hype. Fuelled by wave after wave of journalistic superlative (everything from 'a milestone' to “the best new musical since the 1950s”), and stoked up with an impressive array of trophies (including the prestigious Pulitzer prize), this eagerly awaited import has finally reached our shores. But after all that, was Rent worth the wait ?

For those who haven't heard, Rent is a low-life tale set in New York's East Village, a 90s retread of Puccini's La Boheme. The story centres on three bitter-sweet relationships: a heterosexual one, featuring songwriter Roger (Adam Pascal) and S&M dancer Mimi (Krysten Cummings); a homosexual one, between transvestite street drummer Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) and computer genius Collins (Jesse L. Martin); and finally a lesbian one, between performance artist Maureen (Jessica Tezier) and lawyer Joanne (Jessica Dubois). The other main protagonist is Mark (Anthony Rapp), a young film-maker who links the three strands, and acts as the show's narrator.

Rapp and Pascal (reprising their Broadway roles) both deliver strong performances as the flat-mates of the loft space, and a nice contrast to the former s rock-style vocals is the latter s more conventional stage-trained voice. Another performer of note, is Heredia (also from the New York production) who is outrageous as a transvestite Santa, in his camp-as-Christmas number, “Today 4U”.

The score itself has some real gems. For instance, Roger's soulful “One Song Glory', the gorgeous gospel-style anthem “Seasons of Love”, and a tender ballad “I ll Cover You”, sung in counterpoint by Angel and Collins.

At times, some of the numbers seem to be a clever synthesis of rock and the more traditional elements of musical theatre - 'One Song' for instance, sounds like something out of a Sondheim musical, pumped up with a Fender guitar. At others, they can sound either like 80s American New Wave or a collection of rabid advertising jingles.

Rent is that rarity in the world of musical theatre, a show that is both contemporary and entertaining. But it has taken so long to get the topic of AIDS and AZT musicalised, it makes you wonder if the show isn t just a little bit passé. After all, Tony Kushner s Angels in America hit Broadway as long ago as 1992, and Jonathan Demme s Philadelphia played to mainstream cinema audiences in 1993. Rather than stand the test of time, I suspect that Rent will show its age all too quickly. Just look at that other Pulitzer winner, A Chorus Line, a musical which was bang up-to-date in 1976, but now looks as dated as a pair of leg warmers.

And, for all the brouhaha surrounding the show, Rent does have its share of faults. These will be especially glaring if you're an advocate of the traditional American stage musical. The book sprawls a little too far for comfort sometimes, the action borders on the chaotic, and many of the characters appear too fleetingly, without much explanation for their presence. As for Larson s lyrics, they aren't full of the usual witty intricacies or disciplined rhyme schemes you'd find in the work of, say, Ebb or Sondheim. But maybe that's expecting too much; judging by the young audience, these sort of criteria probably don't enter into it.

Which brings us to the real reason why Larson should be applauded.With one show, this native New Yorker has made the musical relevant to a whole new generation. Going to see Andrew Lloyd-Webber isn't cool, but thanks to the groovy costumes, and the Madonna style headset microphones, Rent is. And that may well be what the genre needs to survive, to start pushing the boundaries, and changing perceptions about what comprises a night out in a Broadway or West End theatre. While Rent may not be the 'best musical of the last 50 years', while it may not stand the test of time like this month's other opener, Show Boat, it is certainly one of the best things to happen to the genre in years.

Richard Forrest, May 1998

This reader was less impressed...

What a waste of money true. The show addresses strong issues, but the score needs a lot of work to capture the emotions of the moment. The acting is a farce. On the plus side, some of the words are deep and rather poetic.

Still, anyone into mainstream theatre should save their money for something more deserving.

Gaby, June 1998