It is a truth universally acknowledged that an old show cannot be dusted off without theatre critics looking for modern relevance.
Take the forthcoming 60th anniversary revival of Pinter’s Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre, where the work was first seen. The play is about two hitmen in a windowless basement waiting for a message from above. When it is reviewed, expect comments about how searingly relevant the play is to our era of lockdown. After 9/11 you couldn’t watch a stage version of The Gruffalo without seeing an allegory about Al-Qaeda’s plot.
But in the Hope Mill Theatre’s revival of Jonathan Larson’s La Bohème-inspired 1996 musical, it is difficult to think of a revival that feels more suited to the time of its return. For a start, the history of Luke Sheppard’s production is itself a story of now.
The show was originally scheduled for July, before it was postponed. To comply with social distancing rules the cast were retained yet had to share a house big enough for all 12 to call home. When the show began previewing it was hit again by the second lockdown. So this stream is the filmed final public performance from that truncated run.
If this backstory had the effect of cementing the cast’s sense of family, then it couldn’t have been better preparation for Billy Aronson’s story about a group of young, penniless squatters who share an unheated warehouse in Manhattan’s East Village. Central is Jewish Mark Cohen (Blake Patrick Anderson), a budding filmmaker who makes his fellow artists the subject of his new documentary.
Through him Rent’s drag queens, musicians, exhibitionists and drug addicts feel closer than ever. Instead of Covid there is HIV. And although the threat of poverty, homelessness, homophobia and drug abuse may not be experiences that most audience members know intimately, thanks to the pandemic we too are stalked by an existential threat, supercharging our empathy for characters who whose vulnerability we may never have previously fully understood.
Life’s fragility was always in this show’s DNA. Its composer Jonathan Larson died from an undiagnosed aortic dissection on the morning of the first preview in New York. But in Sheppard’s production the antidote to all this mortality are the many life-enhancing performances by this young thrilling, cast.
They sing superbly well. To identify one over others might be unfair. Still, while Anderson’s grounded Mark anchors the show, among the roof-raisers demanding a mentioned are Alex Thomas-Smith as the beautiful-in-mind-and-body transvestite Angel, and Millie O’Connell as performance artist Maureen. Her duet with lover Joanne (Jocasta Almgill) is worthy of a replay, one of the few silver linings that go with streaming a show.
But re-streaming can never replace being there, of course.
And when the cast are allowed back on stage, this is one show — perhaps the only one I have seen online during the pandemic — that I will want to see again live.
Rent is available online at www.hopemilltheatre.co.uk