Duke Of York's Theatre, London WC2
Opened 15 October, 2007

The late Jonathan Larson's rock(ish) update of La Bohème, set among the more dubious class of loft-dwellers of contemporary New York's Alphabet City district, has been a Broadway fixture since it opened there in 1996, but has been unable to duplicate its success on this side of the pond. Its two previous West End runs have been respectable but unspectacular. Now the creative team behind the recent pop successes of Kylie Minogue have turned their collective hand to a "Remixed" version. This disguises what I consider the show's main problem (that Larson could not find a lyrical idiom which effectively straddled music-theatre and rock to match his far more successful score), but it does so by rendering it unnoticeable beneath a deluge of bland teen pap.

Steve Anderson's musical arrangements flatten out Larson's dynamics into the same bright piano, synthetic strings and remorselessly cheery drums that characterise so much of current assembly-line chart pop. Not forgetting those vocal harmonies that are almost artificially perfect but somehow manage to avoid delineating an outright tune. Ashley Wallen's choreography is a matter of suggesting movement and energy rather than actually plotting anything complex or original: apart from an adequate tango number, it's all generic shuffling and pose-striking. And like William Baker's direction, it all seems to take place line-abreast. This is pop-concert staging: get your stars moving across the front so the crowd can see them. When Baker tries to use the depth of the stage, he does so by layering flat two-dimensional compositions one behind another.

Of the actors, it is saying something when Denise Van Outen as performance artist Maureen is the most assured theatrical performer (she even starts working the house and gets a bit of audience participation going), although Francesca Jackson as her lover Joanne stands up well in comparison. Ex-Sugababe Siobhan Donaghy, in contrast, is a cipher as Mimi the exotic dancer and whore; during her supposedly raunchy dance number, you can see her thinking, "Now, this is where I do this...". She is one of several characters (not including Van Outen's) who have become English migrants, presumably to sidestep all that too-awkward accent work.

Homogenising a show is one thing, but Rent has a cherished status for many because it was the first musical to deal successfully with characters living, and dying, with AIDS (an obvious update from the consumption which plagued the original characters). Here, we hardly notice when half the principal characters take their combination of medications after their "cocktail hour" alarm bleepers go off. The death of Angel (whom Jay Webb makes neither as flamboyant nor as disarming as he needs to be) takes place upstage behind a love duet, and he very tastefully climbs a ladder to heaven; Mark Bailey's set looks like an Islington designer version of the prison for Bad Girls, a world away from the grit and squalor which Larson deliberately included. As for Mimi, whose operatic incarnation gets one of the most famously poignant expirations in the stage repertoire, here she coughs a couple of times, faints then revives.

Ah, but to show how Aware he is, Baker twice has a scrolling LED display above the full width of the stage roll out the names of numerous artistic AIDS victims from Mercury to Mapplethorpe, Nomi to Nureyev. This is not paying respect to those who have been snatched away; it is commandeering the dead for a crass bit of ostentation, and it stinks. If Kylie's biggest hit had been about this production, it would be entitled "Can't Get It Off Of My Shoe".

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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