George Watson’s College
Review by Thom Dibdin
Mature performances and excellent staging mark out the production of Rent (School Edition) staged by George Watson’s College.
And maturity is certainly needed for such a close-to-the-bone show as Rent, set in New York’s bohemian Alphabet City in the mid-1990s among a group of struggling artists who are living under the shadow of AIDS.
Even in the school edition – which loses a song from the original and cleans up the language to a degree – the references to drugs and sex are many and direct. While its various relationships have the potential to be as challenging as the relationships in Puccini’s La Boheme (on which Jonathan Larson based the story) were in the late 19th century.
It is also a musical which requires big voices and plenty of stage presence.
There’s no problem on that front for Scott Cruickshank as filmmaker Mark, who opens the show on Christmas Eve filming his composer flatmate Roger (Thomas Mullins) listlessly tuning his guitar as he tries to get back into writing music. He is quite capable of stepping out-front and directing the narrative.
If Mullins’ voice isn’t quite as fiery as the vocals require, he is particularly strong in developing Roger, whose girlfriend wrote him a note that they had AIDS – before slitting her wrists in the bath. The arrival of the strong-voiced Laura Cruickshank as neighbour Mimi, a junkie and exotic dancer whose tiny hands are frozen and needs a candle lit, brings out their characters even further.
There is rather more subtlety required – and given – by Duncan Murray-Uren, who plays their pal: HIV-positive computer lecturer Tom Collins. Beaten up in the opening scene, he soon falls for the suitably named Angel who, it turns out , is also HIV-positive. Murray-Uren is nicely understated to Ayesha Quigley’s big, sassy performance as the over-the-top Angel.
The motivating plot development of Rent’s first half comes from Mark and Roger’s erstwhile flatmate and owner of their building, the yuppie Benjamin Coffin III. He who wants to clear the building, evict the tented village of homeless people in the empty block next door, and turn it into a video studio.
Protest against this comes from Mark’s former lover, Maureen, a performance artist, whose new lover, Joanne, has taken over his function as roadie, gofer and general dogsbody. Roles which, given Maureen’s allure to men and women alike, this Harvard-educated public interest lawyer is more than willing to take on. For the time being.
Matthew Marriott and Erin Ramsay both put in solid performances as Benjamin and Joanne. But it is when Jenni Philp as Maureen hits the stage that the whole thing really begins to take off. Philp takes Maureen’s artistically dubious performance piece – which kicks off from the nursery rhyme Hey Diddle Diddle – and really makes it work.
With a strong onstage band led by Alison Croal on piano, a big chorus who interweave well with the principals and interesting use of onstage live video mix of the performances, this is excellent to watch.
It is always good to see a young company with the confidence to stand up and give their all to their performances. And this cast is no different. The next step for them will be to learn how to allow those performances to fully serve the music and words they are singing.
The difficulty is that unless you already know the plot, this production does not make it at all easy to follow. There is no obvious signifier that Angel is a transvestite as the story unfolds, for example. Maybe it is there in the lyrics, but if you don’t ensure that everything sung is as clear as the spoken lines then confusion is going to ensue. More than a few members of the audience were consulting their handy programme synopsis during the interval.
Opening the second act and something of a theme throughout it, Rent has one of great songs of modern musicals in Seasons of Love. And even here, comprehension of the words came second to stepping out and giving a big, powerful performance. It’s all very crowd-pleasing, but it doesn’t serve the story.
Yet, as the plot begins to skip through the highs and tragedies of the ensuing year, before arriving back at Christmas Eve for its finale, the company give hugely compelling performances. The death of Angel, the breakdown of Roger and Mimi’s relationship, and the friends going their separate ways, are all articulately teased out.
A big, satisfying production, with excellent work across all the performances – onstage and backstage.
Running time: 2 hours 30 mins.
George Watson’s College, 19-22 June, 2012.
George Watson’s drama department website: www.gwc.org.u