Theatre Review – Rent The Musical

Jonathan Larson‘s hit musical, presented by Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd
York Theatre Royal, Tuesday 18th April 2017

Photograph courtesy of Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd

Rent is an imperfect musical about imperfect people, produced originally in 1996 and countless times since (and before – it’s a modern adaptation of Puccini’s La Bohème.) It’s easy to see why we keep coming back to this tale comprised of author Jonathan Larson’s heart and soul. A landmark turn in musical theatre, Larson’s unusual, rocking score captures the lives of the marginalised citizens of mid-90’s East Village.

Dancer Mimi (Philippa Stefani), drag queen Angel (Layton Williams) and boyfriend Tom Collins (Ryan O’Gorman), performance artist Maureen (Christina Modestou), and singer-songwriter Roger (Ross Hunter) are among the strugglers and stragglers. Aspiring film-maker Mark (Billy Cullum) frames the piece as a disposable white male narrator; his own troubles unrousing but his lines painfully relevant:

How do you document real life
When real life’s getting more like fiction each day?”

Photograph courtesy of Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd

Despite the obvious incredible talent of the cast, the atmosphere and chemistry fall slightly short. There is something missing in the room; only occasional moments hitting the mark and sending home the sentiment that should be firing a crowd in any decade. Lee Proud’s choreography is in turns over-ambitious and bafflingly meaningless and dull. The use of gritty industrial scaffold set from Theatr Clwyd mostly as a backdrop is a missed opportunity, and the music levels vary from too loud to be intelligible, to too quiet to have any impact. The love matches aren’t quite convincing either, though this is not the fault of the cast; the script simply doesn’t allow the breathing room to relax into their spark.

Highlights are Stefani’s sexy, emotional and empowered Out Tonight, Modestou‘s masterfully observed Over The Moon and Santa Fe, performed with knowing compassion by O’Gorman, Cullum, and the impressive Williams, whom you fall hopelessly in love with at first sight. Thanks both to his sublime voice and Williams’ colourful performance, O’Gorman’s reprise of I’ll Cover You is simply beautiful.

Photograph courtesy of Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd

As always, full-scale high-end musical theatre about the marginalised presented to paying middle-class audiences raises the question of who this is speaking to, and what its message really is.

Catch the show and decide for yourself, tonight and tomorrow at York Theatre Royal. Tickets are available online or on 01904 623568.

Theatre Review – Turcaret

Theatre Review TFTV presents Turcaret by Alain-René Lesage
Translation by John Norman, directed by Alex Urquhart, Amy Noriko Ward and Sam Duffy

Swooning & swindling is the name of the game in Lesage’s critical eighteenth-century class farce. Oafish, dissolute financier Turcaret (Nick Newman) lavishes his affections on the coquettish Baronne (Annabel Redgate), who coyly berates him for his flood of gifts before happily bestowing them upon her own lover, the knavish Chevalier (George Doughty), who of course is also in it for the goods alone. But the goods don’t stop there; this is a game of pass the parcel that, of course, the help will ultimately win.

As carefully noted by the trio of directors, the downfall of the rich and the triumph of the subjugated is a tale we will always have time for, though the script does undo itself slightly in its own dripping working-class snobbery. The language remains rooted in the pas, while the action is framed with modern costume and a fresh, angular set. The jury is out on the sensibilities.

Newman is fantastic in the titular role, playfully saluting both Turcaret’s innuendos and more tender moments of genuine expression. Chris Casbon plays a snake-like, scheming Frontin, confiding in the audience with soliloquies to send up the frivolity of the upper echelons that he is ripping off. Harry Elletson gives excellent performances both as the ruthless Rafle and the deceptive Furet, though the real star of the show is Samantha Finlay, whose delightfully sarcastic Marine serves as a mere hors d’oeuvre to her superb Comtesse, who delivers the physicality of a saturated weeble and the comic timing of a grenade.

The other female roles are slightly thankless, as straight-women confined to either plain exposition or sardonic remarks and eye-rolling, though Redgate plays her part with wry grace, and Kat Spencer’s Lisette is enjoyable to watch as an outsider with the advantage of a moment to smell the roses and consider her true emotional response to the situation.

Casbon delivers the final twists with urgency and aplomb, and you can’t help but applaud his duplicitous heist.

On Female Friendships

My friendships with women have evolved over the years, and are still evolving. I am incredibly grateful for what they are becoming, not least because they have been shaky at times. I had a series of ‘unfortunate’ friends whom I may have mentioned before; the people who I found myself closest to in my new schools, who bullied me in ways both crass and complex.

At college I found myself in the unique position of being ready to finally say, “Fuck you” to one of these friends who was treating me poorly, and got to trot off and choose myself a whole new bunch of friends who excited me and cheerlead(? Past tense…) me, and began a whole new chapter of experience in my life.

Throughout university I struggled to find people I connected with on a fundamental level. I flew the nest in the biggest way I could imagine at the time and left home comforts far behind me. I regret that sometimes. The small northern town and the very small northern campus I ended up at did not yield the open-minded liberal microcosm I had hoped for. I spent these years quite lonely.

Following graduation I formed the most intense friendships I had had for years. Living in each other’s pockets, we literally co-habited, ate almost every meal together and made creative work together, and shared dayjobs. That inevitably burned out.

Since then, I have felt slightly adrift, having invested every energy in this insular dynamic and finding myself now without a permanent home, a best friend I have known all my life whom I talk to every day. This seems to be something everyone has – a default, a backup, a safe bet.

When everyone you know is having children and getting married, you feel this all the more. Guest lists really drive things home.

I don’t always have the tools to honour my friendships properly. I have found myself on the end of a few very one-sided friendships over the past few years that have ultimately fallen apart. It was frustrating thinking I was giving all I could, using my years of focus on communication, and still not finding a compromise that worked. Which really shows how little these friendships were meant to be.

However, I’ve been looking around me recently and noticing that I have a pretty super support network of women who are respectful, loving and accepting, who make the effort to maintain our friendship. I can’t express how much it stands out to find these types of people in your life – people who actively listen, who tell you openly that you are worth their time and that they’re happy to see you, who regularly get up out of the house with no excuse for meeting other than enjoying each other’s company. There’s no need for themed events or activities.

Maybe the others could have been saved with some kind of mutual nurturing practice. I joined feminist newsletter Lenny Letter yesterday and the first email they sent me included this article. It’s about exercising timed conversations as a way of developing your listening skills and making space for both people in a relationship to speak and be heard. It’s used in couples counselling as well as by friends, and it’s a really valuable tool for anyone wanting to better their relationships, or indeed even just to further their own communication skills. I highly recommend it.

It’s ever-more important to value and celebrate our female friendships in this time of violence and oppression, to raise up women’s voices, to ‘build each other up’. Write a postcard to your female friends today. Start a group chat. Share the love. Keep it up.

The Lost Thing

She could have lost it on purpose, of course. That’s what he liked to remind her. It was a possibility. Well, she would prove him wrong, and never find the damn thing. Someone else would have to find it for her, because she had already checked everywhere, and exhausted all the possibilities she could imagine. The answer was external, it had to be, she huffed. She was clearly the victim of some mean, contained conspiracy, designed to teach her a lesson. That was not unheard of. That was a possibility, she aired. The suggestion seemed to bounce off his arrogance-coated ear and crack dully on the kitchen tiles.

Lulu (The Dictionary)

Once upon the Forest of Dean, I was a young woman leaving home. I was packing all my things, and, of course, some of someone else’s. One of the some was a little red dictionary, bound in faux leather, with little dimples covering the cover. Being curious, I opened it up.

I don’t know that I was looking for anything in particular, but here, I found it. As if written solely to satisfy my hunger for mystery, there it was, scrawled in fifty-seven-year old pencil:

‘Merry Xmas ’48, Norman’ – which lead me off in one confusion, as this was my grandfather’s name – ‘Love, Lulu’.

Now, I didn’t know anyone called Lulu, and neither did my mother, whose dictionary it was, when asked. Nonetheless, I needed to know the meanings of words, so I stashed the little red dictionary in my big university bag, and left home.

No sooner had I set foot on the train, that I heard a strange, distant whine, like a dog pining for its owner. Can’t be mum, I thought, that’s just silly. But the thing called out, ever so slightly louder, and I heard… ‘Aardvark…’

I shook my head and settled down into the 1980’s carpet chair, dismissing the hallucination. Trains make all kinds of noises.

I was moving in with a friend from school and college, an old-timer, Melissa. We never spoke much in school, but had gotten to know each other in free lessons at college, meandering the field and annoying our psychology teacher.

We settled into a rickety cardboard student house, No. 8 Warwick Street, and came to be sisters. We ate together, watched three doses a day of Neighbours together, avoided essays and Freshers’ Week together. Sometimes, though, we were alone.

One of these times, Melissa had just gone out and I was alone in the house. I was drying my hair after a shower, gazing out of my bedroom window over the rows of higgledy back gardens and walls, trying to guess which one it was the infamous York rapist was living in, having read of his recent release. Supposedly, it was on our block.

Suddenly the hairdryer started to fizz and smoke, and within seconds, it blew up. Luckily I escaped the damage without a scrape, and grumbled off to buy a new one. I thought nothing of it when, donning my coat and locking the door, a little whiny thing I can only describe as red, whispered, ‘Careful…’

Six months later, I was alone again. Melissa had just gone out, as seems usually to be the case, having discovered a hole in the kitchen wall that allowed more-than-socially-acceptable noise through from what must have been a bathroom next door. Having slept through an unusually cold night, I was achy and tired, and a little jumpy. I put the kettle on. Approximately three-quarters toward the boil, the kettle started to sputter and shake. I stepped back just as the plug spat itself out of the socket, with such force that it knocked the kettle, that had burst into flame at the base, off the counter and into a convenient leak from the freezer. ‘Careful…’ I felt, in my ear.

Another six months later, I had a boyfriend. Wanting to be aloof, with a fresh start in a new city, I was playing it cool. I was an independent woman, throwing my hands up happ-e-y. I was alone again. Half an hour after said boyfriend had left my place, about as much time as it might take for him to make it home, make a cup of tea and get into bed, I heard something. Lying in bed, frozen still, I listened. Three or four different voices, young, male, aggressive, were prowling the back yard, that my window overlooked.

Not daring to pull back the curtains, I listened as the voices, clear as day, seemed to explore the yard and confer with each other. They went quiet for a moment. And then a stone hit my window. And then another. And then another. Independence was far from my mind as I reached for my phone. ‘Please come.’ I said. ‘There’s someone here.’

Obedient boyfriend agreed, and I waited. For roughly twenty minutes more, about the amount of time it might take for said boyfriend to get out of bed, get dressed, bump into a housemate, and then make his way back… the stones and the voices continued. There was a knock at the door. My phone went off. ‘It’s me.’

Sidling down the stairs like a child on a mountain, bum against the ground, I edged towards the front door. A dark figure loomed behind the circus-mirror glass. Boyfriend.

The pair of us crept upstairs and boyfriend took a furtive peek behind the curtain, before pulling it back completely.

‘There’s nothing there, Anna.’

Needless to say, that relationship didn’t last.

The next day was moving out day, and I was cleaning the house. Melissa had just gone out to get some more bleach. Scrubbing away at limescale that was probably older than me, my eyes glazed over the grey sink, whirlpooled the plughole, and stared down into the black.

A short, loud but muffled thump caught my attention. A stupid young bird had flown straight into the window above my head, which I’d even opened to clear the chemicals from the air. The thing could have flown straight in, or anywhere else, but it hit the glass. I looked down to the yard.

There was no bird.

Returning my gaze indoors, I shook my head, and in that instance, I saw…

There, etched into the glass in the bottom-right pane of the bathroom window, was…

‘Lulu’

The very same handwriting as in the little red dictionary. I reached out and pressed my finger into the name, recording the exact feel of the letters’ curves, the scratchy dips in the glass. ‘Merry Xmas… Love Lulu’

I grew up over the following year, became wise and cynical, forgot, dismissed all but science. I forgot all about Lulu. That is, until my third year of university. I moved back into Warwick Street with my friends who were still studying alongside me. Melissa had graduated already, not having taken a gap year. There were three of us staying together, and the house on Warwick Street was available again.

And Lulu wasn’t there. There, on the same old bathroom window, Lulu wasn’t there. Although, what was there, was a tiny little noise… A tiny little whine, that brushed through my hair with the words, ‘I told you…’

I never took anything that didn’t belong to me again.