22 August 2021

Rent - Hope Mill Theatre

Like every theatre, it's been a turbulent time for Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre. This production of Rent was due to play last year and did open very briefly to a socially distanced audience before the second lockdown halted the production, that shutdown meant the show chose to film and stream the production to huge critical acclaim. Fast forward to this summer and the theatre is finally playing to full houses at the venue.

Yesterday (August 21st, 2021) a group of friends and me went up to see the show and we were all blown away. Here are 5 reasons you should consider grabbing a ticket for the production that only runs until September 19th, 2021.

1 - The Hope Mill Theatre
The theatre itself is such a wonderfully intimate space. The vision of Joseph Houston and William Whelton the theatre opened in 2015 and won Fringe Venue of the Year at the 2018 Stage Awards. It seats 120 people and works particularly well for a production like this one of Rent. The intimate setting means even if you're further back, like me and the group was (back but one row) you don't feel too detached from the performance.

The only downside of it being such a small space is that it was rather warm in there, so maybe bear that in mind before you visit. Again this could be because we were at the back but it was scorching in there, it's not often you leave a theatre feeling as sweaty and the performers!

The full Rent company. Photo by Pamela Raith


2 - The Direction by Luke Sheppard and the creative team.
Luke Sheppard's production of Rent allows for the power of Jonathan Larson's book and music to come to the fore. As I mentioned above the intimate setting allows for the performance to feel more intense and moving. The use of the stage and having the company sat around it the whole time is so clever and adds a lovely layer to the piece - it's so fun to watch the reaction of the cast to the piece, especially Millie O'Connell who looks like she's having the time of her life with the show.

Sheppard's slick direction hits the heart of the story, a story in 1980s America where a group of friends tries to battle AIDS and the legacy they'll leave behind. The design team of David Woodhead (sets and costume), Howard Hudson (lighting design), Paul Gatehouse (sound design), and George Reeve (projection design) all contribute superbly. The brick of the Hope Mill itself becomes the Manhattan walls with protest posters adorned over them. The use of the imagery from Mark's camera is cleverly projected on the backdrop which is a white partially see-through curtain.

Perhaps the shows most striking imagery lies in the candle symbolising the loss this group of friends, and many of those around them would have been going through. This isn't a flashy over-the-top production but raw and real staging that will both break your heart and ultimately leave you uplifted.

Tom Francis and Maiya Quansah-Breed. Photo by Pamela Raith


3 - The Choreography by Tom Jackson Greaves
Two words immediately come to mind - 'Tango Maureen'.  The fluidity of the movement by Greaves is magic to watch when performed by the cast. The number is staged in a ring which is shaped by a red rope held by the company sat around the stage. Jocasta Almgill (Joanne) and Luke Bayer (Mark) nail every beat of tricky movement especially with the rope.

There's some lovely symbolic work, with socially distancing largely still in place throughout. This is most noticeable when the lovers remain with their hands kept slightly apart. The movement and dance become even more striking with this imagery.

There's lots of fabulous dance by Alison Driver, she effortlessly contorts her body into various shapes with real skill.

Alison Driver (centre). Photo by Pamela Raith


4 - The Music and the Band.
For anyone who with an interest in musical theatre you'll know how iconic Jonathan Larson's music and lyric is - lines like "no day but today" or simple the whole of 'Seasons of Love'. With musical supervision and orchestral fixing by the brilliant Katy Richardson, this production feels in safe hands. has Rent ever sounded this good?

Musical director Chris Poon and the band make the music come to life in the most extraordinary way. The goosebumps I felt as soon as the opening number 'Rent' began is something you can only feel with live theatre. The sheer swell of a joyous sound. 

Alex Thomas-Smith and Dom Hartley-Harris. Photo by Pamela Raith


5 - The hugely talented cast.
It's hard to know where to begin with the cast. Each member of the company is exceptional. Many of the 2020 company return with a few new cast members joining too.

Tom Francis is perfectly cast as Roger. He captures the heart of the down and out character who is trying to write one song that will be his lasting legacy. His powerful voice is thrilling to listen to. His relationship with Maiya Quansah-Breed's Mimi is lovely. The desolation he feels in the final scene is very moving. 

Luke Bayer does a fantastic job as Mark. Throughout everything that going on around him he keeps on going and you sense that the supporting nature Bayer brings to his Mark keeps the other characters going through love, loss, and heartbreak.

For me, the heart of Rent comes from the relationship between Collins and Angel. Here played by Dom Hartley-Harris and Alex Thomas-Smith. The two are outstanding and are fantastic to watch. The energy Thomas-Smith brings to their angel is stunning. Even if you know what's coming you're still rocked to the core by Angel's fate. I defy anyone to not be deeply moved by the power that Hartley-Harris emits during 'I'll Cover You (Reprise)'.

Millie O'Connell, as mentioned above, is clearly having SO much fun as Maureen. Her boundless energy is delightful. She glides around with real flow. Whilst I normally can't abide 'Over The Moon', what O'Connell does with it makes it really enjoyable. The comedy and wide expressions she brings are fabulous to watch. O'Connell bounces off Jocasta Almgill's Joanne well, and the pair serve up 'Take Me or Leave Me' superbly.

Michael Ahomka-Lindsay makes Benny feel more likeable than in previous incarnations of the show I've seen - which given he is the one who trying to get the Rent money and forcing the characters out on the street once they can't pay - is no mean feat.

The featured ensemble, Isaac Hesketh, Iona Fraser, Alison Driver, Karl Lankester (and Joe Foster who was indisposed for the performance we attended) does great work playing numerous characters throughout as well as fleshing out the extra layers of movement. Fraser and Lankester both get stand-out solo moments in the iconic 'Seasons of Love'

The company of Rent. Photo by Pamela Raith


As you can probably tell from this post I LOVED this production. It's right up there with the best pieces of theatre you could see. Rent is a masterpiece of a musical as is this Hope Mill Theatre production. Make your "no day but today" and book yourself a trip.

Rent runs at the Hope Mill Theatre until Sunday 19th September 2021 - for booking details visit https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/

1 comment

  1. I saw this production last night, and you've absolutely nailed everything I wanted to say about it. (I was even sitting in the same part of the theatre as you.) Thanks for sorting out all my thoughts and making them coherent. I'm still too goosebumpy to do it myself.

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