Another week, another review of just one of the fabulous shows taking place on campus this Winter! This week, we took a trip to the Riley Smith Theatre to experience RENT, which well and truly transported us back to 80s/90s New York. With a cast of 18 talented students, as well as a huge team backstage, both in production and in the band, the musical was both entertaining and challenging to watch. If you’re sitting here wondering ‘I’ve heard of RENT, but what actually is it?’, allow me to take you back…
You’re living in New York along with fellow aspiring young artists, not only experiencing the constant challenges of homelessness and poverty, but now being faced with an even greater rising issue: HIV/AIDS.
The musical portrays the story of people not so dissimilar from ourselves, relying on friendship, romance and everything in between to get them through the Winter. Despite this, each individual faces their own challenges, whether this be “Roger”, portrayed by Jack Foster, who is grieving the suicide of his girlfriend through music, or “Angel” who is facing her own health struggle.
One of the most poignant aspects of the musical for me, aside from the stunning singing voices of the cast, were the emotional connections created by the performers between themselves and the audience. We both agreed that we felt immensely connected to the cast, whether this came in the form of celebrating their highs in the musical, or grieving their lows. As Elena mentions later in this article, although the microphones unfortunately cut out a lot during the singing, during the performance between Maureen (played by our girl Anna Duffell!) and Joanne (the brilliant Phoebe Coldron) of “Take Me Or Leave Me,” the mic issues actually managed to bring us closer to the performers as people. As people concentrated to hear their beautiful singing voices collaborating, we got attached to the sheer skill of their vocals, with the crowd regularly cheering and supporting each singer as they hit their highest notes. For this exact reason, the duet was actually my favourite chorus of the musical, with both Anna and Phoebe putting even more rigor, power and strength into their acting, voices and personas due to external problems.
This emotional connection with the audience grew deeper in the second half as viewers started to become aware of Angel’s deteriorating health as HIV/AIDS began to overpower her. After initially being drawn to her infectious personality and attitude as well as just her general ‘IDGAF’ vibe, Angel’s slow creeping decline really drew me back down to earth to understand the true meaning of this musical and just why it was so important that these voices are heard. I felt particularly connected to Angel’s character when observing the moment between her and Benny, as they came down to the front of the stage just embracing each other in silence. The devoted connection between Ajay and Cameron was absolutely magnetic, with the whole scene literally speaking louder than words ever could, as they both peacefully embraced their failure to survive the disease. From a larger perspective, I feel that this scene was the most significant one in the whole musical. It can be said even that Angel’s character was the most outgoing, creative, electric personality on stage, drawing the audience in as we embraced her diversity. Seeing her deterioration really brought the musical down to the harsh necessity of its production – creating awareness that HIV/AIDS can affect anyone, from any background, sexuality, race or gender, despite the stereotypes still prevalent today.
Although the musical is set in the 80s/90s, its themes are still extremely relevant in today’s society, with the rate of HIV/AIDS in heterosexual women between 2020 and 2021 rising by 9% in the UK alone. Despite knowing that the disease is still a challenging battle faced by many today, this staggering figure was not something I was aware of before watching the musical. This has therefore really evoked within me a dedication to research and bring greater awareness to this issue. As World AIDS Day approaches on 1st December, this couldn’t be a better representation of the challenges young people are facing today. Although there has been an increased control of the disease in modern history, there still remains no cure – this is something that must be talked about more. That said, the team at LUU Musical Theatre Society’s decision to use this opportunity to raise money for two charities across the LGBTQI+ community, women and girls (Albert Kennedy Trust and Action Aid), let’s hope this is something we will see achieved in the near future.
One of the most memorable aspects of the play was the powerful singing voices of the entire cast. The performance of the very famous song, “Seasons of Love” was particularly impressive and reflected the talents of the Rent cast, as they flawlessly combined their voices together in one powerful, cohesive performance. We were however particularly impressed by the performance of Cass Palmer-Stirling, who played the character “Mimi”, an exotic dancer and junkie, who one night just turns up at the apartment of Mark and Roger, two other characters in the play. Her performance was tangibly energetic and truly powerful – she portrayed the unpredictable, yet extremely likable character of Mimi very well. You couldn’t help but feel scared, attracted to and empathetic towards Cass’ character all at once and this simply demonstrated the powerful range of her acting skills.
That being said, while the cast of Rent undeniably produced a thoroughly entertaining and energetic performance, the overall quality and impact of the play was diminished by the unfortunate audio disruption. During the performance, the actor’s microphones often cut out, leaving the audience unable to hear anything. This ultimately detracted from the viewer’s experience, for huge chunks of the script and important parts of lyrics were left unheard, leaving the audience at times very confused. I believe that had the audio quality been more consistent, the audience would have left the play feeling far more enthused and entertained. However, instead of discussing the themes of the play or the actors’ wonderful performances, the post-play chat amongst the audience surrounded their dismay over the audio.
Additionally, while the audio would sometimes be cut out, it would also at times come out sounding static-like, impacting the originally very strong and marvelous voices of the Rent cast. This is also disappointing, as I believe the actors’ strong and powerful voices would have undoubtedly contributed towards an amazing performance.
Moreover, I feel that play at times felt slightly rushed and chaotic. Perhaps if the audio quality was better, the audience would not have felt so overwhelmed. Nevertheless, the play could have potentially benefited from a slower pace, as each scene could not be fully appreciated. Rather, it felt as if each scene blurred into each other and this in turn made it difficult to determine what was happening during different points of the play.
Nevertheless, despite these minor oversights, the Rent production was still incredibly entertaining and impactful. We both thoroughly enjoyed watching the performance, which made us laugh, cry and be left simply blown away by the sheer talent of the Rent cast. Thank you to the amazing team at LUU Musical Theatre Society for giving us this opportunity to watch this brilliant musical which both entertained and challenged us!
Written by: Elena Goss & Holly Harrison
Edited by: Harsheni Maniarasan