A day in Manchester: ‘Rent’ at the Hope Mill Theatre

By Constance Drugeot

Picture: Pamela Raith

On Saturday 21st of August, I travelled to Manchester to see a production of Rent. As a theatre lover, this is quite a normal day for me. Except that it wasn’t. 

Because, on that day, I finally got to see a live production of Rent after discovering it nine years before.

Not only that, but Rent was the show that made me fall in love with musical theatre back in 2012, when I was still living in France. It was a quiet and boring summer and, while scrolling endlessly on YouTube, I stumbled upon a clip of ‘La Vie Bohème’ from the 2005 movie. Not knowing anything about the show then, I have to say that this was a very weird first introduction. But I loved it. I loved it so much that I decided to watch the movie. 

To say that I liked the movie is an understatement. 

I watched it again two days later. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was beautiful, it was heartbreaking, it was witty, it was inspiring, but above all, it was real. I was literally ‘over the moon.’ Back then, I didn’t know much about musical theatre as it isn’t really part of the French culture and so, discovering Rent put me on a whole new path that shaped who I was going to become. It brought me to the theatre. It brought me to the U.K. And eventually, it brought me to that intimate, heartwarming theatre in Manchester, where I got to witness the magic and love of Rent in real life. 

And let me tell you, it was everything I hoped for and more.

Rent at the Hope Mill Theatre was directed by Luke Sheppard, and featured Tom Jackson Greaves as choreographer and Katy Richardson as Musical Supervisor. Before seeing it, I knew it was going to be a special show. I wasn’t disappointed. The casting was brilliant and the staging, from the direction to the choreography, was breathtaking. The production managed to keep the spirit of Rent all the while making it incredibly unique.

First off, the theatre in itself is very tiny and feels more like a room with a platform than an actual stage. Which was perfect for this show where every character and situation is supposed to be a representation of our reality. Even more striking was how each performer was always included in the entire show. They were sitting on the side of the stage and participated throughout the story – whether it was to accompany the staging or the performance of their fellow cast members. It was a great addition to the show and made it even more intimate. It was as if we were in our own personal bubble for two hours and fifty minutes. 

As for any production of Rent, the set was rather bare apart from a few chairs, barrels, and a couple of props. ‘La Vie Bohème’ was even performed without the iconic table, which could have been a questionable choice but ended up being a genius move. The show instead incorporated stunning choreography and movements, which allowed the musical to take form and feel so much more alive. 

The air in the room felt electric and it felt like we were all connected somehow, through Jonathan Larson’s music and story. It was quite surreal to experience. 

Another thing that struck me was how strong symbolism was in the production. Candles were used at that effect a couple of times to symbolise life and death, but also hope and the loss of hope. I felt that the choreography, especially of the ensemble, served that purpose as well. Every movement, every gesture was so powerful and drove the piece forward. That is why, for me, the ensemble members –  Iona Fraser, Alison Driver, Joe Foster, Karl Lankester – were the true heart of the show. 

A special mention to Alex Thomas-Smith who blew my mind as Angel. Not only were their costumes and makeup gorgeous, but they also completely owned the stage. Their take on Angel was so fresh and inspiring, it was beautiful to see. They also can DANCE! Millie O’Connell was particularly funny as Maureen Johnson and Maiya Quansah-Breed, endearing and flirty as Mimi Marquez. They were definitely made for these roles. Jocasta Almgill brought a fun and quirky side to Joanne Jefferson. Tom Francis as Roger, Luke Bayer as Mark, Dom Hartley-Harris as Collins, and Michael Ahomka-Lindsay as Benny, had incredible chemistry and were a joy to witness on stage! 

I feel very grateful to have witnessed this very special production of Rent. Not only is it a show that is so close to my heart, but it also keeps reminding me why I love musical theatre. Rent is all about living your life fully and knowing that love has no bounds. On a rainy Saturday afternoon in Manchester, I felt the spark within me shine brighter than ever. 

It was definitely one for the books!

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