RENT, like Puccini's opera La Bohème, is loosely based on Scenes de la Vie Bohème by Henry Murger, short stories describing the impoverished and peripatetic life of Parisian fringe artists. Murger was himself of that ilk, living variously around the Sorbonne and below the Butte de Montmartre, and actually succumbed to consumption born of malnutrition and straightened living at 38 in 1861. The then-princely sum of 7,000 francs was posthumously collected for a memorial to him; I dare say he would have bitten your hand off for the cash while still alive. Where Murger's demi-mondains are doing battle with slum landlords and absinthe, Jonathan Larson's (book, music and lyrics) RENT bohemian types are struggling with the looming presence of HIV/AIDS as they carry on their individual dances of life that are to turn, gruesomely, into a dance of death.
The Bernard Sunley Lecture Theatre's playing space is broad though not deep, while its acoustics and sound system are pleasingly responsive. Emily Stevenhagen's set of scaffolded platforms was flanked by a graffiti wall dotted with 80s band/gig posters (Wham!, The Police, Void etc.) and backed by the theatre's yellow London brick wall, part of which was festooned by the posters, conveying a non-specific urban feel. But a Manhattan atmosphere was instantly established via Mark, a quasi-narrator (Peter Todd, with warm charisma and convincing accent).
The songs began to roll past us – 'Tune Up' in reprises and then the first of the big ensemble numbers, 'Rent'. These were delivered with attack as the playing space swarmed both horizontally and upwards with bodies. Soon, though, the besetting problem of the production revealed itself. The early sense of pizzazz began inexorably to turn into numbness as the songs rolled past us, each one, fast or slow, duet or group piece, sounding too similar to its predecessor; loud to the point of raucousness as singer after singer over-egged the volume pudding. The male principals led the way in this respect, and both Lucy Jones as Mimi and Lydia Ciaccio as Joanne, both dynamic in all other respects with real stage presence, eventually fell victim to the same malady in order not to be swamped vocally by those around them.
Alex Wadman managed to buck the trend as the tragic Angel in red dress and white platform boots, standing out in his quirky, sympathetic persona and possessing a distinctive singing voice. His movement on the stairs in those boots was a little triumph – achieved with lots of practice, so he told me! From the ensemble, I picked out Jackie Brown and Oliver Spacey for their extra dash and personality.
The volume issue was all the more regrettable since Max Penrose's choreography was the most inventive I've seen in a student musical. The moves were slick and fresh, the use of the vertical dimension exemplary, every dancer moved to his or her individual routine; to manage this in a confined floor space with little depth was a minor miracle. The 6-piece band – not named in the otherwise excellent programme - under Nick Heymann (electric piano, keyboards, guitars, bass and drums) was also outstanding, especially given that it was split into two widely-spaced groups (owing to fire regulations). Not only was the playing accurate and cue-perfect, its collective output was calculated at what should have been the appropriately sympathetic volume vis à vis the vocalists.
This was a notably ambitious (more than 50 people involved) first outing from the SCDS, and with a little future attention to technical detail and channelling of energy, it should be onwards and upwards for the next venture.