The first time I ever saw RENT was back in April, the first time the anniversary concert toured. I completely fell in love with the show, so when another tour was announced I didn’t hesitate to book my tickets. There were a few changes to the cast: Natasha Hamilton would play Maureen instead of Nikki Davis Jones, Hannah Levane would replace Jemma Alexander as Joanne and Neil Moors would be playing Benny, taking over from Kenny Thompson. The best cast change by a mile however had to be Rachel John as Mimi. She was my first Meat in We Will Rock You and she is one talented lady so I was really excited to see what she could do with the role.
Accompanying me that night would be my Mum – a known musical skeptic. I have to drag her kicking and screaming to most shows, but she’s slowly being converted. I have RENT on DVD and constantly watch it, hoping that she might suddenly have an epiphany and see how amazing it is – she doesn’t leave the room when it’s on like she does with Oliver! so I guess that’s a good sign. I’d gone to the April tour with my friends from college, and this time it was Mum’s turn. She almost refused to go because of “the cow song” as she calls it, but in the end I managed to persuade her, but I may have forgotten to mention that we were sat in the second row of the stalls so she had nowhere to hide. Oh well.
The first two people on stage were Mark (Paul Ayres) and Roger (Rory Taylor). I’d seen them both perform these roles before and I knew how good they both were, but I was amazed at how much they had both improved in just seven months. For me there is no other Mark than Paul Ayres – he is absolutely perfect for the role with just the right amount of sarcasm and bitterness mixed with a really endearing vulnerability that means you can’t help but love him. And Rory? Wow. Just wow. I picked him out right from his very first audition for “Superstar” on ITV and I’m very proud to say my instincts were spot on. He has an incredible voice and gives Roger an edge that puts you firmly in his corner despite the fact that he can be a bit of an idiot sometimes.
Then came Leon Lopez, my first ever Collins. The first time I saw RENT there was so much going on I could barely keep up – it’s quite a complicated plot and the relationships between the characters are quite complex – and I’m sorry to say that Leon slipped under my radar, and what a mistake that was. He is a phenomenal vocalist with that cheeky glint in his eye that makes Collins so loveable. His relationship with Angel (Ian Stroughair) was beautiful to watch and heartbreaking to see it come to an end. And then there’s Ian. There truly are no words for how talented this man is. First of all, he looks better in zebra print leggings and knee high boots than I ever will. I defy you not to fall in love with his portrayal of Angel – it’s absolutely perfect and he’s fascinating to watch.
The first new cast member on stage was Neil Moors playing Benny, and he is by far and away the best Benny I have ever seen. He had a gorgeous deep speaking voice and just the right amount of arrogance without coming across as a total prat. He was confident and sure of himself – exactly how I imagine Benny to be, and he bounced off the other cast members really well. Then came Rachel John as Mimi.
Mimi is my favourite character in RENT – she is feisty and confident but also has a vulnerable side that shows that underneath she is just a scared young girl. As much as I love Kerry Ellis she wasn’t very convincing as Mimi – the voice was there but the vulnerability wasn’t. Having seen Rachel John in We Will Rock You I already knew what she was capable of, but she surpassed all of my expectations and then some. She was absolutely incredible. Her chemistry with Rory Taylor was obvious from the very start of “Light my Candle” – the very first duet they have. The song I was looking forward to the most was “Out Tonight” – Mimi’s big solo where Rachel could really let loose with her voice, and she was absolutely incredible. It’s not just the power in her voice but the way she controls it – she can hit the highest notes with ease and really belt the big notes, but she can also restrain that power for the more gentle parts of the song. It’s an absolute treat to watch he perform.
The “big name” of this production was Natasha Hamilton from Atomic Kitten. All I can say is that it’s incredibly unfortunate that I saw Nikki Davis Jones first, because there was no way anybody was ever going to top that. There was something slightly mechanical and lacklustre about Natasha’s performance, as if she was just going through the motions as quickly as possible. I was a bit disappointed with the lack of power behind her voice – Maureen has some very big songs and she didn’t quite measure up. The same goes for Hannah Levane who played Joanne. My first Joanne – Jemma Alexander – was brilliant, and her chemistry with Nikki Davis Jones was absolutely electric. Hannah is obviously an extremely talented woman with a stunning voice but, for me, she wasn’t Joanne. She was obviously enjoying herself and was very smiley and enthusiastic, whereas I see Joanne as more serious and professional. She didn’t really come across as the feisty, sexy match for Maureen as Jemma did, and there were some rather unflattering costumes that didn’t exactly help. When I think of Joanne I think of white shirts and crisp, grey suits, but for some reason they had Hannah in floaty shirts and jumpsuits which just didn’t fit in with her character and weren’t all that flattering for her figure.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this show would not work without the amazing ensemble. I absolutely adored Katie Bernstein the first time around and was so happy to see that she had signed up for this tour as well. Then there was Beth Humphries and Tim Prottey Jones who can hit the most unbelievable high notes – especially in Seasons of Love. They got a big cheer and round of applause each just for that single note. Then there were the two boys, David Hinton-Gale and Joel Harper-Jackson. Up until that night I only knew David Hinton-Gale as “scary drug-dealer man” because of the way he leers at Mimi from under his hood, but watching him in the background this time I realised how much he and the rest of the ensemble actually do. They’re practically always on stage, always in different guises with complex dance routines and backing vocals – I have huge respect for ensemble members because there is no way in hell I would be able to remember that much and perform it so well on a different stage very week!
At the interval I interrogated my Mum. She too had picked out Katie Bernstein as being incredibly talented and loved how the performance was staged – it wasn’t the full musical but you still got a feel for the story and all of the characters. I think I may have finally converted her!
There was one part of the show that I had been preparing for throughout the entire first act – Angel’s death and funeral. It didn’t help that I love Ian Stroughair to pieces and, even though I know it’s not real (which he had to tell me several times at the stage door afterwards) it was still very upsetting to see him so weak and vulnerable on stage. The scenes themselves are beautifully done – Roger and Mimi sit on the stairs at opposite ends of the stage singing “Without You” while Collins sits with Angel in his arms in the middle of the stage. Angel has none of her make up or her elaborate wigs or costumes – just a simple white t-shirt with denim dungarees. At the end of the song Collins and Angel make their way off stage, and the next scene is the main characters giving their eulogies at Angel’s funeral. This is the bit that really gets me. As Collins steps up to sing “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” a video of Angel comes onto the screen at the back of the stage. At first she is in all her glory with her wig on and her makeup done, but as the song progresses she removes the wig and wipes away the make up until all that is left is an image of Ian on the screen, bare-faced and looking into the camera. As the song ends, the screen fades to black. By this point a steady stream of tears was running down my face – thank God for waterproof mascara – and as the lights went down I couldn’t help but sob into my Mum’s shoulder. I felt Collins’ pain at losing Angel, I felt the despair that his friends felt as they realised they would never see her again. It’s such a simple, beautiful piece of theatre and I know it will stay with me for a long time to come.
After the show and the well-deserved standing ovation the cast received, it was time to go to the stage door. I knew I had to see Rachel, but I wanted to talk to as many cast members as I could, purely to tell them how incredible they all are. It was absolute madness. There were at least fifty teenage girls all waiting for Natasha Hamilton (and Martyn with a “y” who I’d encountered the previous week at Singin’ in the Rain.) To be honest I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in meeting her, and was getting incredibly pissed off with everyone behind me who felt the need to shove to the front despite the fact that nobody had come out yet. Thanks to this utter chaos I missed the entire ensemble, and when Natasha did come out all hell broke loose. I haven’t had a stage door experience like this for a while – I was used to the calmer and more sedate stage doors at We Will Rock You and Rock of Ages, but this was pure madness. I did well to get out alive to be honest. After somehow managing to talk to Paul Ayres and Rory Taylor (who signed the CD of his band I’d bought – thank you!) I attempted to talk to Tim Prottey Jones but was quite literally shoved out of the way by Martyn with a “y”. Just because I am small does not mean I will not shove you back. After talking to Leon Lopez I decided to cut my losses and get the hell out of there. Rachel had family in the audience so she had headed straight out to meet them but luckily she was just up the street so I had a nice chat with her – it was good to see her again! Feeling a tad battered and bruised from the millions of fan girls vying for Natasha’s attention, it was time to go home to bed.