I have long held a fascination for the musical Rent, and perhaps my biggest regret will be never having had the opportunity to see the original Broadway production. Jonathan Larson’s rock musical has earned itself a strong reputation amongst fans and critics alike for being a truly modern piece of theatre, and despite being over two decades old, can still explore themes which resonate with society today. Though, when it comes to promenade productions it may not be the first that springs to mind.
Vivo D’Arte return to Frogmore Mill, the country’s oldest working papermill, following their highly successful Parade last year. Just as with that previous production, the audience move with the cast, fully immersed in both the performance and atmosphere of this wonderful old building. It’s a highly ambitious and innovative production, but it pays off in huge dividends.
Loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème, it is the story of a group of young bohemian artists living in New York City’s East Village at the end of the last millennium. The group of friends struggle to keep warm, live the kind of life they want to live, and of course pay the rent. They also face the struggle of HIV and AIDS, which is weaved through the whole story, but is most prominent in ‘Will I?’ beautifully sung by Thomas Isherwood.
There’s less of the mill’s structure utilised in this production, which means less moving about for the audience, but that does mean that when you do move, you are doing so for a purpose; when it’s time for Maureen’s ‘Over The Moon’ you leave the ‘apartment’ and head to the ‘lot’, and when the characters break back in to their padlocked apartment building, you go with them.
Despite being as far from a traditional theatre space as you can imagine, the lighting is particularly effective. This ambitious production then takes it a step further by incorporating live video, making it less likely that you will miss key moments happening in other areas of the space, the climax of Angel’s illness works particularly well in this medium.
The ensemble do a marvellous job, interacting with the audience at every available opportunity. Connor Dyer brings an entirely new look to filmmaker Mark Cohen, it feels like a more confident character ready to tackle the world head on, and it works extremely well. Aran MacRae is exceptional as Roger, bringing a true rock style to his performance. When he performs with Lizzie Emery as Mimi in the more tender numbers, such as ‘Light My Candle’, it’s absolutely exquisite.
Benjamin Froehlich, as Collins and Andrew Rawlinson-Heath, as Angel give equally strong performances, especially in ‘I’ll Cover You’. Casey Bird is wonderfully eccentric as Maureen, alongside Natalie Winsor’s more conservative Joanne, and it is when Winsor joins Dyer for a spirited ‘Tango Maureen’, that you begin to see this is a very special production indeed.
I may never have caught the original Broadway production, but actually experiencing Rent; sitting in the Life Café and being part of ‘La Vie Boheme’, or literally walking ‘On The Street’ as a talented ensemble danced around me, made this a magical and joyous production filled with emotion. Jonathan Larson wrote a musical about making sacrifices for art, and Vivo D’Arte have reinvented it in this stunning and inspired production.