Review: RENT by Burton & Garran Hall

University students all over the world know the importance of paying the rent on time. For a group of students at Burton and Garran Hall, this everyday dilemma takes on a greater resonance. Their production of the modern classic musical RENT, being staged this week at ANU, tells the story of a group of impoverished friends struggling to make a name for themselves in New York at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It draws a diverse cast of characters into an engaging and ultimately moving performance.

On the opening night, (when this reviewer saw it), the production was guaranteed to contain some technical issues. There were microphone problems throughout the performance, and the transitions between scenes were occasionally painfully slow. The production design as a whole, however, is commendable. The set design is ambitious; our initial impression is of an apartment exterior complete with graffiti covering the walls, which are extremely tall and quite imposing. The set manages to be both bleak and cluttered at the same time, and this, while mildly discordant, allows cast members to be creative in their use of on-stage props.

The relationships between the central characters are not always believable, though they become more solid towards the end of the show. The actors’ blocking is also somewhat directionless in smaller scenes. Their interaction with the audience, however, strikes just the right balance. There are some absolute stand-out actors amongst the principal cast, notably Daniel McNamara, who plays the protagonist, film-maker Mark Cohen. McNamara is extremely relatable in his portrayal of Mark, a quality which is essential for bringing cohesion to the cast. Proving that talent is genetic, his brother Eamonn McNamara puts in a delightfully sleazy performance as Benny Coffin III.

James Lawson brings swagger and bravado to the role of Angel, along with a great pair of legs. Llewys Howells as Tom Collins is believable and earnest in his devotion to Angel. Max Messenger’s performance of Roger Davis is appropriately yearning, while Mohinii Parasnis manages to be both shameless and helpless as Mimi Marquez. Jessica Highshows great spirit in her portrayal of Maureen, an activist and avant-garde performer. Alessa Kronas Joanne is well-matched, showing determination and resolve in her relationship with Maureen.

The real strength of this production is in its ensemble scenes. Choreographer Ben Purserhas put together some wonderful blocking, especially in La Vie Bohème. The ensemble performers show great versatility in their ability to shift between energetic and subdued as the mood changes, and the group’s combined vocal talent gives ensemble songs a profound intensity. Of particular note is Levi Barkeras Gordon, whose solo in Will I? brought about the only real moment of pathos in the entire show. Two other principal ensemble members, Nivedita Shankarand Bridget Kerr,should both be singled out for their excellent comic timing in the amusing voice-mail interludes.

Directors Toby Moffattand Caitlin Overtonhave done an incredible job in putting together such a complex musical. They have, however, fallen into the common pitfall when staging RENT: treating a socially conscious musical, which ought to be confronting and powerful, as a shock musical which is confronting only. Despite this, RENTis more than just a One Song Glory. Burton and Garran Hall have put on a performance that manages to both captivate its audience and draw us into the lives and fears of its characters.

 

RENT runs from 14th-16th of August at 7.30pm.