525,600 minutes, as a song from Rent points out, is a year, spent in the life of a New York community “celebrating life and facing death and AIDS at the turn of the century” to quote its writer Jonathan Larson. The show is a rock version of Puccini’s La Boheme, with most of the characters transferred to bohemian 1990s New York. Rent premiered on Broadway on 1st February 1996, exactly 100 years after La Boheme opened in Turin, and enjoyed a successful 18 month run at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre a few years later.
BODS’s production, directed with great precision by Petra Schofield, is staged along the wider side of the rectangular Mission Theatre, bringing the action right up to the audience throughout , and giving plenty of acting space. The large set is reminiscent of the original London production, with unhidden scaffold and a delightful Christmas tree made of plastic bottles. Costume and props were simple but accurate, with 1990s referenced through items such as a Nirvana t-shirt and a large mobile phone.
The band were sometimes subject to the “Spinal Tap” effect, with some of their switches turned up to eleven, but in general the balance was good, and there was some wonderful playing, especially from the guitars.
As narrator and filmmaker Mark, Andy Siddall, who recently shone in new musical Pencoweth, has a gentle and lyrical voice, telling the story with eloquence and truth. Mark Sellick as Roger, his room-mate, is equally convincing, with a powerful rock voice and softer tones for ballads, ideal for his duets with Jenny Lavender’s Mimi, who went from brash podium dancer to almost dying in the final scene with great sensitivity. TJ Choongh, as tranvestite Angel, does not have the loudest of voices, but more than makes up for it with his confident acting, dominating the stage in his/her white boots. Tristan Carter, as Angel’s lover Tom, has a beautiful voice, provoking tears from many of the audience with his superb, honest, rendition of I’ll Cover You at Angel’s funeral.
Sabrina Messer is the required show-stopping actress Maureen, going just far enough over the top to make us feel mildly uncomfortable, and as her partner Joanne, Sarah-Jane Adlington is a believable lawyer and a great singer and dancer too, as she proves in Tango: Maureen with Mark. Rob Trigger plays the baddie landlord Benny with a growing kindness, as the villain who ends up giving his tenants their apartment, and paying for treatment for Mimi.
The rest of the extremely talented cast play many minor characters; parents, police, sexual partners of every type, drug addicts and dealers, etc., each with their own attention to detail and character, and form an outstanding chorus, with accurate harmonies and subtle changes of tone and volume. The high point of the evening, featuring the entire cast, was the tightly-directed/choreographed and beautifully sung La Vie Boheme, like a modern day animated musical Last Supper.
This amazing production has sold out for the rest of the run, so look out for future shows from BODS.