SUPAS’ Rent – 8 December 2021, Sheffield University Drama Studio

Review by Daniel O’Key.

25 years ago, bohemians and theatre kids’ lives were changed forever more by the debut of Jonathan Larsson’s rock musical Rent. And like gingerbread lattes, The Pogues and dreadful gift-wrapping, Sheffield University Performing Arts Society (SUPAS) brought Larsson’s classic to the Drama Studio stage in time for the festive season. A tale of a (mostly) free-spirited group of friends, who err on the societal expectations of a post-Reagan America, whether that be their gender, race or sexuality, living under the shadow of AIDS in New York. Rent is one of the most-performed shows of the last three decades, and SUPAS mostly proved why it is so enduringly beloved.

Perhaps Rents longevity is thanks to the confetti of emotions within its plot and music. Over the two-and-a-half-hour emotional rollercoaster we looped around joyous, moving, and occasionally absurd storylines. We saw somebody’s ode to a lactose-intolerant, desert-dwelling cow with a penchant for Diet coke, before actually rooting for this insane person to woo back their abandoned lover. And we accepted a drag queen jollily sing-songing about murdering an Akita, before having our hearts broken as they succumbed to the AIDS virus. It was a wild ride, and the to-ing and fro-ing of tones could have been jarring for the audience, but Director CJ Simon managed them successfully. The transition of the hospital-set ballad Goodbye Love into the death-orgy number Contact was particularly well-staged. It was slightly perplexing to see a squad of exotic dancers gate-crash a mannequin-challenging AIDS support group (“Life Support” and “Out Tonight”), but otherwise SUPAS landed the full-spectrum of Rents numbers and themes.

Rent is sung-through and ranges from the conversational to the dramatic, and the cast sold most of the moments with gusto. Lisa England as Maureen wowed with her pitch-perfect singing and total commitment. It is something to have an audience of cold students and cynical Northerner’s mooing like a war chant, but she did it! Alice Wilkinson stole her share of scenes as the perpetually frustrated and only-sane-one Joanne, bringing the engaging and theatrical presence of a Caberet era Liza Minnelli (with the snazziest shoes the world ever saw). Isaiah James-Mitchell as Collins did great justice to the show’s most tissue-reaching moment: I’ll Cover You (Reprise), with powerful vocals and real feeling. There could have been slightly more interaction and animation from some cast members whilst in the background of scenes, to make each setting feel more lived-in. But that said, Lucy Palmer and Francesca Vercoe deserve a lot of credit for the range of emotion they brought to their scenes, always giving great face and their interplay with the rest of the cast as part of the ensemble.

The Drama studio is a classic-feeling venue, with a small stage but gaudy looking balconies surrounding it high atop, however it proved a decent place for a rock musical. Set Designer Will Leggetter, Set Constructer Sam Bromley and the rest of the tech team did a nice job of designing and draping the New York “apartment block”, washing line and signage to set the scene. In some full cast moments, the set did feel slightly bare at times, where the space above the stage could have been utilised more fully. But the Friends-esque apartment design screamed 90’s and did a lot of heavy lifting alone.

The lighting also provided an impactful punctuation on various scenes, from the green wash during a tango between two envious, freshly dumped lovers, to room-filling backlights lending a gravitas to the guitar-heavy numbers. However, the onstage makeup could have been used more widely as a storytelling tool. During the gorgeous “Will I”, the cast looked a little too healthy by impoverished, late-stage AIDS standards. Some partially concealed lesions and worn costuming could have conveyed the devastation of the virus and given more of an impact to one of the most moving songs in the show. However, much of the costume was dead-on for the era, with long coats, neon crop tops and multicoloured shirts/bottoms galore.

Jonathan Larsson’s classic may well be performed by SUPAS again in about 5 years, and why not? The music, setting and free-spirited themes could not be better for a student production in the enlightened 2020’s. And SUPAS have made sure their iteration this time around has some living up to. Their work ethic and high standards showed through, and anyone would be advised to catch their productions another day.

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