Prince Of Wales Theatre, London W1
Opened 5 December, 2001

Rent, which has returned to the West End until mid-January in Paul Kerryson's Leicester Haymarket production, is so very nearly as great as its devotees affirm. In the end, though, Jonathan Larson's posthumously acclaimed rock-opera rewrite of La Bohème set among the squats of New York's Alphabet City either inadvertently fumbles or timidly sells most of its passes.

Larson was a composer of musicals who wanted to use the rock idiom he grew up with. Musically, he largely succeeds: there is little pomp in the basic five-piece-band arrangements of the show's numbers, and he manages to make a number of standard chord changes sound majestic without denying their archetypal character: these tunes come over as rock anthems, not stage-musical anthems which happen to be rather rocky.

Lyrically, though, he comes an unfortunate cropper: on the one hand, he engages in the kind of tight internal rhyme beloved of Sondheim and in his wake many lesser lyricists, but which is largely alien to pop music apart from the occasional one-off; on the other, he also takes excessive liberties with metre and the absence of rhyme which are characteristic of much operatic aria but simply mess up the rhythm on which rock depends. This occurs in actual songs as well as recitative passages (although there is no such animal as rock recitative, unless you count things like the intro to "Leader Of The Pack"). Thus, his words sadly let down his tunes in opposite directions at once.

The story, with its triumphs and tragedies among the artistic and sexual fringe community, is of course a triumph of sentimentality, to the extent even of a quite cowardly last-minute resurrection of the HIV-stricken Mimi; it is fundamentally feelgood even in its defiant tristesse. But it never quite achieves the synthesis it strives for: it provides rock for the stage-musical constituency otherwise ill-served in that area, and vice versa, but it does not bridge the gap between the two. As a show, it has a dedicated market, but it may be symptomatic of its shortcomings that on the evening I saw it, several audience members thought nothing of nipping out and back in mid-number on loo-breaks, perhaps unused to live theatre. It is laudable that the show brings in such people, but it seemingly then fails to rivet them with the notion of a shared, intimate theatrical experience.

As narrator Mark, Adam Rickitt has boyish charm but tries too hard to show his acting talent by giving unusually-paced readings to his spoken lines; he also has the kind of weak, slightly helium singing voice that '50s pop producers would swathe in strong echo. Debbie Kurup's Mimi is appealing, but the character is short-changed amid the numerous plot strands so that we see snapshots of various facets of her personality and decline rather than taking the journey with her. Neil Couperthwaite as the drag-queen Angel sashays extravagantly but with an undercurrent of awkward self-consciousness. By the end, all the requisite emotional buttons had been pressed, but even whilst I was responding as Larson intended I had the disquieting feeling that my response was somehow phoney.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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