Walking in from the historic streets of the Royal Borough of Greenwich on a beautifully sunny afternoon, the stark, smoky and dimly lit set of Greenwich Theatre’s production of RENT made quite a striking contrast. In the blink of an eye we are transported across the Atlantic to New York’s Lower East Side and the creative hubbub of the bohemian Alphabet City, populated by impoverished artists and musicians.
The camaraderie between these struggling performers was portrayed wonderfully by the company from the get go; all of the ensemble numbers were lively but the two obvious highlight – not just of this but any production of RENT – are ‘La Vie Boheme’ and ‘Seasons of Love’. The group vocals were strong and the chorus were charismatic. Those in smaller roles gave as much to their performance as the leads, particularly those acting in the ‘Voice Mail’ pieces. ‘Voice Mail #5’, with its well timed repetition, portrayed very well the worrying parents of our heroes.
Stephanie Fearon was suitably sweet and vulnerable in the role of Mimi Marquez and she smashed it with her first solo number, ‘Out Tonight’ – the vocals were spot on and the dancing was superbly sexy.
Edward Handoll’s portrayal of Roger was more shy than I had previously seen in other productions. I always think of Roger as one of the leaders of the group and as such a little more boldness wouldn’t have gone amiss in this performance. Although Roger can shrink back due to the tormenting memory of the death of his girlfriend April and the awareness that he is HIV positive, he should be more moody and less wallflower in my opinion.
Although the character of Maureen is undoubtedly supposed to be a huge drama queen I couldn’t help feeling it was way overdone. Zoe Birkett’s can only be defined as a ‘marmite performance’, and although she received plenty of appreciative cheers from the crowd, as she threw herself around the stage and flashed her bare buttocks – such gregariousness left me cold. We didn’t need her rolling around the floor while Mimi was potentially in the grip of death; it turned what was supposed to be an emotional moment into a complete farce. I don’t consider myself a prude and love over the top theatrics as much as the next reviewer, but I found myself continually cringing.
Jamie Birkett on the other hand, who played Maureen’s lesbian lover Joanne, stole the show. She lent some wonderful quirky moments to a role that is usually very straight-laced, making Joanne a likeable character and capturing my attention even when she was not the main focus. I also loved her costumes the most – the masculine shirt, trousers and braces combined with the more feminine heels was fabulously fierce.
She also played well off Benjamin Stratton’s Mark in ‘Tango: Maureen’ and the choreography was amusing and well timed. Stratton’s accent was also easily the best in the show and I loved listening to him.
Gary Wood’s performance as the très chic Angel Dumott Schunard was fearless, silly and he had me giggling the most. His relationship with Mikel Sylvanus’ Tom Collins was very believable and Sylavanus’ reprise of ‘I’ll Cover You’ was full of emotion.
To conclude, if you’re after a night of camp fun and catchy songs, look no further than RENT.
RENT is playing at the Greenwich Theatre until Sunday 16 September. For more information and tickets please see the Greenwich Theatre website. Photography by Claire Bilyard.