As Hope Mill Theatre’s Executive Director William Whelton observes in his programme notes, the journey to bring their production of Rent to the stage has been a difficult one.
Originally scheduled for performance in the summer, national lockdown and the closure of theatres forced the show’s postponement. Mere days after its rescheduled opening night in late October, a second lockdown has cut the show’s run short and the theatre is dark once again.
It could be argued that this premature end is somewhat fitting for a musical that was written partly in response to New York’s AIDS crisis of the 1990s. The show’s action is centred on a group of impoverished creatives, living in city flats with no heating and no ability to pay their rent; several of them are also living with AIDS. Romantic relationships and individual struggles play out alongside the artists’ battle to keep their home safe from developers.
The impressively diverse cast – made up of 8 key roles and four ensemble members – perform as if their lives depend on it, with exceptional singing, dancing and commitment to their characters across the board. The fierce energy that radiates from each and every actor – coupled with Jonathon Larson’s powerful rock score and live accompaniment by an excellent band of musicians – is breathtaking, and the clear bond between the cast members, who have been living in a household bubble while rehearsing, adds an extra level of emotional conviction.
This emotional weight is felt most fully in the musical’s saddest scenes, so moments of humour are a welcome reprieve – whether it’s the darkly comic Christmas carols of the homeless chorus, surreal performance poetry or the witty ‘Tango Maureen’ duet.
Oddly, however, this production is almost completely devoid of any physical signs of affection between the romantic couples, a decision perhaps taken to make the show more COVID-safe; nonetheless, it does feel strange that in spite of the intense focus, Rent has on all kinds of love, we see it visualised only with the touch of hands.
The set has an appropriately bohemian feel, with a pallet stage, minimal dressing and exposed brick walls decorated with fairy lights, posters and protest signs. The decision to have the cast seated around the edges of the stage, watching the main action whenever they aren’t directly involved in it, is an interesting one – perhaps a nod to the show’s origins in workshop and read-through performance. Crucially they remain in character throughout, reacting to the scenes and singing as a chorus.
Although it was first conceived nearly three decades ago, Rent feels particularly poignant in the current climate. We are also living through a pandemic – albeit a different kind – and it’s hard not to dwell on how it has affected all our lives in the past year during the moving ‘Seasons of Love.’
‘What You Own’ – a bitterly ironic meditation on what it means to be part of America’s capitalist system – also takes on a different tone against a background of US election night tension. But it’s the knowledge of the current crisis in the arts, and the threats to its survival, that make Hope Mill’s Rent feel so timely; it’s a swansong of sorts, an outpouring of love to creativity and individuality.★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Fortunately for anyone who wasn’t lucky enough to catch the show live and in person, Hope Mill has thought on its feet and made Rent available online. You can find out more information and book tickets here.