Last night, I went along to the press night of Rent, at The Old Rep in Birmingham, as Brum Hour‘s plus one.
Rent is a modern retelling of Puccini’s opera La Bohème, and tells the story of a group of struggling artists in 90s New York, battling addiction, gentrification and the shadow of AIDS. This production for The Old Rep has been developed entirely in Birmingham, with a young cast of actors from around the Midlands.
I’ll be honest, Rent is one of my favourite musicals, and I know the movie starring the Broadway cast pretty much backwards, so I was careful not to go in with high expectations. I needn’t have worried.
Built in 1913, The Old Rep is not a large theatre, and with a show the scale of Rent, clever staging is essential. The set design was simple, but worked fantastically to give the idea of multiple apartments and walkways. All constructed on different levels with a network of staircases, the cast were able to create the feel of lots of different spaces with very minimal set.
The cast were all wonderful singers, shown off beautifully in the gorgeous harmonies of numbers like Seasons Of Love, and Will I?
For Rent to work, you need a strong actor in the part of Mark, as we see so much of the plot through his eyes (or camera lens…). In this production, Mark is played by Joe Ashman. Capable hands indeed! Ashman’s singing and acting were impressive, and he played Mark with sensitivity, humour and not a hint of an Anthony Rapp impression. Not an easy feat…
I was also impressed with Jessica Singer’s Mimi (not least due to the incredible professionalism she showed when her microphone was clearly coming detached during her solo! Poor girl. She handled it like a champ though, hooked it back into place and carried on). She had Mimi’s mix of seductiveness and vulnerability down pat. Ashleigh Aston as Maureen had one of the biggest voices I’ve ever heard live. Seriously impressive pipes. I would have liked to see her push the acting up a notch to match that big voice, but she was still good. I just feel that we wait so long to see Maureen after hearing all the characters talk about her, that she ought to be a real show stopper when she does arrive on stage! I did love her take on Maureen’s protest song, Over The Moon, though. It was gloriously bonkers and that voice…wow.
The real stand out for me though was Collins, played by Rhys Owen. Now, I admit, Collins is a not a character I’ve ever identified as a favourite in Rent (I switch between Maureen and Angel…), but this man stole the show. He came into his own in the second half, delivering an incredibly emotionally charged performance of I’ll Cover You (Reprise). Owen has an absolutely stunning voice and his acting in this number was stunning. A well deserved standing ovation swiftly followed; the first time I have ever seen that mid performance instead of during the curtain call!
Unfortunately, there were a lot of issues with props, costume and tech for the first night, but the cast battled through like true professionals, whether they were losing their shoes, falling through benches or finding their mic had completely cut out. I really felt for Sophie Poulton in particular, playing Joanne. She was clearly a very talented actress and singer, but her microphone was barely functioning, meaning a lot of her performance was lost. The band were also too loud, I think, especially considering the mic difficulties. When you have such a vocally talented cast, it’s a shame to drown them out! Hopefully these little hiccups will be ironed out for the rest of the run.
I think it’s wonderful to have a production like this created in Birmingham, and with a cast largely drawn from the Midlands. Let’s celebrate our homegrown talent! Over all, this was an excellent production and well worth a watch.
Rent is at The Old Rep until Saturday 30th July, with limited tickets still available. Be quick to book! You can book here.