RENT follows the lives of eight friends – among them a HIV-infected erotic dancer, a lawyer, and a drag queen street drummer – over the course of one year in Manhattan’s impoverished “Alphabet City”. Set among a colony of artists, the homeless and drug addicts, it’s a hard-hitting story, which moves from focusing on the characters’ struggle to find somewhere to live (hence the title) towards how they are affected by the AIDs epidemic sweeping through their community.
Georgia Figgis and the rest of Curious Grin have done a fantastic job at bringing the story to life at the Oxford Playhouse. The production manages to refrain from being overly sentimental, but the overarching message and tragedy (sorry – it might be a musical, but that doesn’t mean everyone gets a happy ending) are touchingly portrayed.
RENT is almost entirely sung-through, but the eight actors playing the main characters more than step up to the challenge. Kitty Murdoch, playing Maureen, and Christian Bevan, playing Collins, deserve particular mention for their stunning performances. Although there are some difficult technical moments in RENT, Murdoch especially made it sound effortless – her performance of “Over the Moon” was one of the high points of the entire show.
The supporting cast was also excellent, particularly in the large-scale numbers such as “La Vie Boheme”. Historically, Oxford productions have struggled to incorporate dance successfully, but the ensemble here are consistently energetic, together and look highly effective on stage. Unfortunately, some issues with miking and sound control meant that there were a few occasions when the audience were unable to hear ensemble members’ solo lines; a shame when the rest of the performance was so professional. However, these teething issues had improved significantly by the second half of the show, so hopefully this problem will be fully resolved for later performances.
It’s also worth mentioning set designer Nathan Stazicker, who has done a fantastic job at recreating a Manhattan squat on stage. Director Georgia Figgis clearly has put a lot of thought into how to use this staging: cast members slide down poles and sing from raised platforms as well as advancing out towards the audience for some numbers. The decision to get the cast to actually stand among the audience during the performance of “Over the Moon” was also a fun one, and worked well as the performance descended to riot.
Overall, RENT is more than worth a visit. Although the Oxford Playhouse ticket price is higher than most student productions in Oxford charge, for that you get a near-professional quality evening, featuring a cast which is made up of some of the most talented actors the university can offer. Beautifully sung and telling an important story, RENT has started off this term of big-name musicals by setting a very high bar for other productions to match.