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RENT, SODS - Palace Theatre, Southend

Guest Reviewer - Corrina Wilson

Rent, a 90’s rock musical loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, by Jonathan Larson tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists (in various forms) trying to survive and thrive under the shadow of widespread drug abuse; in a time when HIV/AIDS was rife. It’s thought provoking and gritty story paved the way for several hard hitting musicals of the 21st Century - Dear Evan Hansen and Everybody’s Talking about Jamie to name two.

Rent has been back in the public eye as recently as the beginning of this year with the live version televised on Fox, starring Vanessa Hudgens as Maureen Johnson. I must say though, as live versions go, SODS production of Rent triumphed over Fox’s version tenfold! Considering it was only their second show, it felt slicker and packed a lot more punch! You almost forgot that this was an amateur version.

After a minor confusion over where our tickets were, which was swiftly sorted, we had a wonderfully warm welcome from this productions director Jonny Buxton. Usually on stage, Jonny decided to turn his hand to directing for this “close to his heart” show. This was, I believe, his first time directing an adult group but not his first outing as a director. You could see Jonny drew well on his other directing experiences ensuring his vision stayed true to Larson’s original, but with some of his own nice touches; having the principles split amongst the ensemble during Seasons of Love, allowed the ensemble to have more of a prominent feel, and also the backstage crew donning famous band t-shirts of the time so that the scene changes could happen in and around the action and not distract, as examples.

The set was very minimalistic, consisted of scaffolding, which added a raised platform for more dynamic performing space, stairs on the right side, the band on stage in full view to the left (embedded within the scaffolding) and a middle entrance at the back. The scenes were dressed with a few props, in keeping of the time period, and the use of tables and chairs that doubled up as stalls in the ‘On The Street’ scene, various bars and flats and of course the iconic restaurant table in ‘La Vie Boheme’. I initially thought that having the band on stage was going to be a distraction, but with the style of the music it was perfect as this enhanced the ‘pop rock’ element that resonates throughout the show.

The principle cast line up of this show had 8 characters, all of which had equal importance to the progression of the plot. It’s safe to say that a combination of the cast’s talent and good direction made sure that this was very much a team show and each principle blended exceptionally well, creating great chemistry within their respective storylines. This was very evident during the song ‘Goodbye Love’ an opportunity to really see the fallout of each character, the rawness laid bare, which was executed superbly.

Mark Cohen played by John Staines and his best friend Roger Davis played by Matt Miller had a great chalk and cheese feel to their characters; John’s witty and caring yet naive Mark against Matt’s angst and soul searching Roger created a strong dynamic that got tested more and more throughout the show, culminating with their poignant and brilliantly sung duet ‘What You Own’.

Mimi Marquez, played by Mandy Larhna, had an understated quality to her character. She showed a subconscious troubled sense of being, and it shone through her vocals in everything she sang. Mandy worked well against Matt’s Roger, and you could feel the tense push and pull of their relationship. It was just such a shame that there was terrible microphone issues with Mandy’s mic during ‘Without You’, although she coped very well. Mimi’s relationship with Benny Coffin, played by Lewis Carlile, showcased another layer to her damaged lifestyle. Lewis lived up to the snobbery of his character, but you could tell that Benny missed his old friends and I liked that addition to him; it gave you a torn love and hate feeling towards Benny.

The next love interests come from Tom Collins and Angel Dumott Schunard, played by Luke Brown and Jordi Tiney respectively. Luke’s performance was perfectly placed with the right amount of charm and finesse, but also showed struggle; firstly for his dream of taking away everyone’s problems and then the loss of Angel. His beautifully sung ‘I’ll Cover You Reprise’ was a highlight for me. Jordi had all of the life and love in his role. He left no stone unturned when it came to his performance, sometimes giving almost too much as with the dancing in ‘Today for You’ left his vocals slightly breathless. A stage commander nonetheless and I still can’t get over how he high kicked into a drop split in 6inch heels!

Lastly we have Samantha Coles, playing Maureen Johnson and Kirsty Buxton playing Joanne Jefferson. I adored the relationship between these two with Kirsty’s excellent comic timing and Samantha’s fearless and confident persona. Kirsty never threw away any of her lines and really made the most of Joanne’s more juicy elements, especially during Maureen and Joanne’s duet ‘Take Me For What I Am’. Samantha absolutely relished her role with performance galore. Her song ‘Over The Moon’ can often be over dramatised, but Samantha had the right balance of diva and artistic flair.

My one little gripe over all for everyone was that at times it was hard to make out what people were saying or singing. When you have such a lyrically driven show the diction plays a key role. It probably didn’t help that everyone’s mics seemed to be at max volume due to a rather meaty sound from the band, so you often lost the finer detail in some scenes. This was quite evident, for example, during the ‘On The Street’ and ‘La Vie Boheme’ when there was lots of vocal action, often at the same time, from several cast members.

I must take a moment to say a huge well done to the incredible Dancers and Ensemble! Particular mention to Millie Gallagher for her ‘Seasons of Love’ solo - excellent control of her top register, Rachael Farrow for her humorous returning cameo of Mrs Cohen and George Rowe also for his ‘Season of Love’ solo and his multitude of cameos. This wasn’t a group of people who just made up the volume during the company numbers or said a line here and there. They were the deep emotion behind the story, they instantly lifted the show to the next level. I have never heard such an insanely good level of harmony work and projection with an ensemble in an amateur production ever! Their Musical Director Ashton Moore, assisted by James Green, clearly put everyone through their paces and it paid off big time. My utmost congratulations to you both for an exceptional sound, not just from the cast but the band as well.

The Dancers proved that you can sing and dance, amazingly, at the same time and do it with great acting intent. Hats off to Sarah-Rose Dunn who choreographed some extremely energetic and eye catching numbers, that challenged the ensemble as well as the dancers and it worked a treat!

Finally to say thank you to everyone from front of house to the backstage crew for a thoroughly enjoyable evening. If you managed to see SODS production of Rent then, like me, you were probably feeding of the energy well in to the next day. If not then make sure you don’t miss out again and get yourself a ticket to their next production of Company as I’m positive you will be greeted with a wonderful night of talent and entertainment!

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