The stage is bustling with so much life in Luke Sheppard’s production of Rent at Hope Mill theatre, Manchester, that it takes a while to notice that none of the cast are touching. This slickly filmed production of Jonathan Larson’s electric musical was rehearsed and created with the cast and crew forming a bubble, each being tested regularly throughout the process. The lack of physical contact is not a Covid safety measure, but an artistic choice.
The classic rock musical tells the story of penniless artists struggling to survive in downtown New York, navigating broken relationships, overdue rent and the Aids crisis. The almost total absence of tactility in this production could be seen as an extension of the characters’ sense of isolation. When, at key moments, they eventually do hold hands or hug, warmth seeps across the stage.
This production needs more of these connections earlier on. This is a musical about falling in love. Intimacy should be ricocheting off the walls. People should fight and be held. The waist in Maureen’s Tango should be grabbed, rather than have the air clutched, several feet apart.
On all other accounts, this is a smooth, well-rounded production that smartly marshals a large cast in a small space, though at times it feels as if the desire to keep the stage busy is prioritised over telling the story cleanly and clearly.
The company performed five shows before the second lockdown was announced, and they managed to film it on the last night. Artfully recorded by The Umbrella Rooms, the camera works in tune with Howard Hudson’s rich lighting design, with the camera neatly directing attention to make it feel, as far as possible, as if we’re in the room.
What stands out most from this production – admirable for having been made at this difficult time – are the voices: the slight edge to Tom Francis’s floppy-haired Roger and the light, soaring timbre of Alex Thomas-Smith’s Angel. The most unforgettable performance comes from Dom Hartley-Harris’s deeply-felt Collins. His rich, rolling bass in I’ll Cover You is show-stealing stuff.