RENT at the Arc Theatre, Trowbridge

Rent at the Arc Theatre - montage by Gail Foster

This week ArcProductions present RENT at the Arc Theatre, Trowbridge, directed by Cherie Demmery.

For those not in the know, Rent is a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning rock musical, loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème and first performed in 1996, exactly one hundred years after the opening night of the opera.  Its creator Jonathan Larson died the night before the premiere and never got to see what an enduring success his musical became.

Rent is set in East Village in Lower Manhattan in the late 80s/early 90s, at a time when the community there was being ravaged by HIV/Aids.  The main characters are Roger (Rob Finlay), a musician desperate to write one good song before he dies, Mark (Karl Montgomery-Williams), a film maker who records the story, Mimi (Cherry Fox) an exotic dancer, Collins (Matt Dauncey), a professor and gay rights activist, Angel (Thomas Montgomery-Williams), a drummer and drag queen, Maureen (Emma Victoria Webb), a promiscuous performance artist, Joanne (Becky Lawrence), a lawyer, and Benny (Naomi Marie), a former roommate turned landlord.  Other characters are parents, junkies, homeless persons, a dealer, a waiter, a window cleaner, a producer, and the police; and some cast members take on several roles. The action takes place in and around Mark and Roger’s flat as they and the wider community struggle to define themselves and come to terms with death whilst keeping their homes and relationships together in uncertain and challenging times.

Scaffolding sets are the usual choice for Rent, and the stage and balconies at the Arc Theatre were divided into various performance areas and decorated with graffiti, wire mesh, coloured mobiles, and mannikins, giving the impression of an arty scrapyard.  The music was provided by a small but harmoniously formed band comprised of Musical Director Liam Howlett on keyboards, one guitarist, one bass guitarist, and a percussionist, from behind a transparent screen of coloured squares stage left that echoed the traditional design of Rent’s publicity posters.

There’s a lot going on in this musical; visually, emotionally, musically, simultaneously; almost to the point of sensory overload.  Why sing one song when you can sing eight at a time, why just have the one scene when you can have three going on in the same space?  There’s not a moment for a breath in Rent, and certainly not a moment to be bored.  That’s why people love it and go to see it time and time (thirteen times in the case of one cast member) again.

The cast of ArcProductions have been in rehearsal since September, and it showed.  I went to the dress rehearsal expecting to have to excuse various mistakes on the grounds that the show would be alright on the night but found little to criticise and much to wildly praise.  The high level of energy and competence exhibited by the players, some of whom clearly had professional experience and most of whom appeared to have had training of some sort, was consistent with a show at the end of a week’s run rather than a dress.

The standard was so high and the cast worked so well together that it is hard to pick out any one performance for particular remark.  The minor roles were played with as much gusto as the leads, and everyone availed themselves of the opportunity to shine.  The things that worked especially well for me were; the chemistry between Roger and his doomed love Mimi, and Collins and the flighty Angel; the spotlights at the sides and the phone scenes; the colourful costumes and complex choreography; the way multiple harmonies were woven together in songs like ‘Another Day’ and ‘Christmas Bells’; Rob Finlay’s performance of ‘One Song Glory’ and his character’s broad emotional range; Cherry Fox’s flirty junky; Emma Victoria Webb’s mesmerising and witty performance of ‘Over The Moon’; Thomas Montgomery-Williams’ sass and sensitivity; Karl Montgomery-Williams’ American boy; Naomi Marie’s magnetic stage presence; Maureen and Joanne’s (Becky Lawrence) ‘Take Me Or Leave Me’ duet; the joy and vigour of the table dance in ‘La Vie Bohème’; the strong voices of the chorus and triumphant cadences of the score: and the sheer gut wrenching mournful magnificence of Matt Dauncey’s rendition of ‘I’ll Cover You (Reprise)’.

Rent is a musical about how a disease devastates a community and how that community comes to terms and comes together in the face of adversity.  It’s a musical about creativity, diversity, equality, and social justice.   It’s a brave and life-affirming musical about love, that picks you up and dances with you and then drops you from a great height into a pool of tears.

It’s a musical about dying, and hope.

Me and the bloke sat next to me cried at the end.

Thanks, ArcProductions!

That was amazing.

Images and text © Gail Foster 21st February 2020