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East of England
posted/updated: 30 Apr 2019 -
Rent - School Edition
Directed by Jeremy Tustin
society/company: Chelmsford Young Generation Amateur Musical Society (directory)
performance date: 29 Apr 2019
venue: Cramphorn Theatre, Fairfield Road, Chelmsford, Essex CM1 1JG
reviewer/s: Michael GRAY (Sardines review)

Jonathan Larson’s rock musical makes considerable demands on any company. Set in the pre-millennial world of bohemian New York, the songs do most of the work, establishing the characters and their complex relationships, and then taking us through a year in the life of Mark, Roger, Mimi and their circle.

Fortunately for the audience, there’s a useful synopsis and a who’s who graphic in the programme. And some captivating performances from the young cast, convincingly inhabiting the weird characters who live under the shadow of HIV/AIDS in a world which had vanished long before these actors were born.

Jeremy Tustin’s production chooses to open with the only memorable song – Seasons of Love – sung straight out by the eight principals. We hear it again at the top of Act II, and for the heart-on-sleeve curtain call finale, with thrilling solos from Jessie Hadley and Reuben Beard.

The story begins with room-mates Roger and Mark, struggling to stay warm and be creative. Mark [Dan Hall] is a film-maker, Roger [Matt Hedges] a musician. Hedges is especially compelling, determined to complete the one song which will be his legacy, his last refrain. Livi Khattar is a superbly sultry Mimi – guttering candle, cold hands – the exotic dancer who flirts with Roger and eventually moves in. We first meet Angel, drummer and drag queen, perched on a trash can, bonding with Collins [the vagabond anarchist very convincingly done by Jordan Webster] as he tends him after he’s mugged in the street.

Paul French, an imposing figure even without the stiletto boots, is a moving blend of fun and pathos. And there’s an impressive Maureen from Virginia Hampson, the performance artist; her pretentious Over The Moon piece is done with energy and naive sincerity.

The small acting area is maximised with a gallery, and two big tables, used as platforms, beds, and, yes, a table for the Last Supper Life Café.

La Vie Boheme is excellently choreographed, as is the Tango Maureen, done with a real sense of style, a little lacking in some of the other numbers that are not raw rock.

The voice mail sequences work very well; the contrast between Maureen and her Ivy League lawyer girlfriend [Phoebe Walsh] is nicely drawn in Take Me or Leave Me, and I liked Mark directing the company for the finale.

There’s a sizeable chorus, the denizens of East Village drifting on to give heft to the big numbers. And great backing from Bryan Cass and his band under the gallery behind the action.

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