With its hard-hitting issues, the late Jonathan Larson’s musical, RENT, is never an easy watch – nor is it an easy task to stage it in the more commercial world of musical theatre as an entertainment.
Indeed, by nature, it is difficult or even inappropriate to say you ‘enjoyed’ the show, but you can enjoy and appreciate the artistic efforts in every department of staging the piece and both the work of the creatives and the performances of those on stage … and to this end, I really ‘enjoyed’ this production.
For this young cast to have dealt with the show’s many darker issues so well and to have been able to extract and convey the more positive message of the piece so clearly is a measure of their maturity, but for them to have achieved all of this in a 9-day rehearsal period is unbelievable!
A story about poverty-stricken artists and musicians facing life with AIDS and drug addiction and dealing with such issues as substance abuse, equality, multiple relationships, friendship and death, director and choreographer, Dean Johnson, hasn’t diluted the topics for commercial gain here, but, instead, has chosen to give us a slice of gritty realism, which is rude, crude and graphic in places.
Appropriately played out on a thrust stage, which allows more intimacy between its audience and the performers to reflect the intimate nature of some of the story’s issues, this production, by nature, offers an ‘in your face’ view of the action at all times.
For some, this can make the show’s more controversial moments even more uncomfortable, while others will find that this introduces a more open approach to the lifestyles being depicted in the piece.
The appropriately run down dual level set boasted tattered posters, graffiti and a simple but effective shadeless light bulb, which all added to the run-down feel of the location, while a metal caged trolley could be seen to reflect the feeling of frustration and entrapment felt by some of the characters about their situation.
Having this fast-paced production book-ended by explanatory observations was a nice touch as was having the four hard-working musicians hidden on stage.
Under the musical direction of Adam Darcy, the small band coped well with the almost totally sung-through format of the soft rock inspired score (and even with its tango tune).
The celebratory feel to La Vie Boheme and the harmonies of Seasons Of Love put them both high on the list of musical highlights.
Utilising them for scene changes and for his lively choreography, Johnson made good use of his energetic ensemble throughout and they all added greatly to the success of this production, especially in giving a full choral sound and spot-on harmonies when needed (something most professional productions can fail to do as they may not have the luxury of having a large ensemble).
With performances that were never less than passionate, there was a strong front line of principals here, including Lee O’Reilly, Tom O’Kelly, Jordan Walker, Mark Lockhart, Hannah Morton and Mimi Joffroy.
However, the performances by Emma Dallas and Jordan Walsh, as Mimi and Roger respectively, really stood out for me for their sheer intensity.
Dallas is new to me, and impressed greatly with a standard of vocal ability and acting skill that one doesn’t come across every day.
I always knew that Walsh was talented, but his performance here was a revelation as he perfectly captured the anger and frustration of the character.
In addition to being great individually, they also impressed vocally in all of their duets as there was a natural chemistry between the two.
As already stated, the whole ensemble were good, but special mention must go to both Ben McDaid and Julie Toal for their vocal performances and to young Annie McIlwaine for making the most of her short time in the spotlight to impress with her character cameo.
I thought the death scene was sympathetically directed and produced a great performance by Jordan Walker as Angel, but don’t let the dark subject matter of this show put you off as there are also some lighter and comical moments.
On the technical side, the lighting design was appropriately moody throughout with some nice effects and the sound was, generally impressive (apart from an opening night sound issue with one or two loud performers).
Full marks to the costume and props department as such attention to detail as brick-sized mobile phones of the era and printed eviction notices didn’t go unnoticed.
Over 20 years after its Broadway opening, this controversial and, then, ground-breaking show remains a powerful piece of hard-edged, but heart-warming, reality.
This show suggests that life can be measured by its quality and, in terms of criticism (or lack of), quality is also the measure of this show … go, ‘rent’ a seat, if there are any still available!
Belvoir Players Amateur Dramatics Society
Belvoir Players Studio Theatre, Belfast
Show runs until Sat 22 July