It was an exciting day when The Hope Mill Theatre announced they could finally reopen their doors to the public. This summer they brought back their production of Rent; a show that opened, then quickly closed again due to lockdown restrictions in 2020 and was streamed to audiences instead. I loved it so much I watched it twice, and this year I got to see it in person.
It’s probably best to mention that Rent is one of my favourite musicals – I’ve seen it multiple times and been in productions of it twice. It’s one of those shows I can never get bored of, and even though I know the songs inside out I still find joy in watching other people perform them.
So being a self-professed Rent expert, I can put my hand on my heart and say this was my favourite production of the show I have ever watched.
Everything about this production worked. The cast is phenomenal, the staging is engaging and welcoming, and the production has an energy that makes this well-known show feel brand new.
The minute we walked into the theatre we were dragged into the world of Rent, with the atmosphere already building through the set and the intimacy of the space.
The cast don’t use a traditional backstage area, but rather spend the entire show sitting around the edge of the stage, engaging with the action. As soon as the actors entered the space, we were all cheering, instantly ready for what was sure to be an incredible performance.
Having watched the streamed production previously I already knew they were a talented bunch, but nothing could prepare me for the electricity of watching this cast live.
Their energy as a team is infectious, and something about the cast being present the entire time made each moment feel supported, with the connections on stage filled with genuine emotion. When you consider the themes of Rent, that connection is a vital part of the storytelling.
These relationships can be spotted all around the stage throughout, whether characters are the centre focus of action or not. Take the introduction to ‘La Vie Boheme’ – while everyone is arguing it out with Benny, I caught Mimi having a moment of happiness because Roger finally held her hand.
These tiny moments add up to this overall feeling that we’re living these emotions, which wouldn’t be possible in a cast that wasn’t always tuned in to the action, and each other.
Not only do they work as an amazing unit, but each member of the cast brings their all to the table. The casting is perfect – each performer suits their role to a T, while still bringing their own charisma and style to the part, delivering a well-known show with flair and personality.
Don’t even get me started on the vocals – I’d probably say they were flawless. From the power of ‘One Song Glory’, to the sing-off of the century in ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ and then the utter heartbreak that is ‘I’ll Cover You Reprise’, everything was delivered with style and dexterity – this lot look like they could perform these roles in their sleep.
I have to start by giving a special mention to Gabriella Garcia. A few days previous to the show I watched, Rent had to close as Maiya Quansah-Breed – the show’s Mimi – was taken ill, and they had no actresses to fill the role. Gabriella was meant to be seeing the show one of those days and stepped in with 3 hours of practice so the show could re-open. She was truly incredible. Aside from moments where she wasn’t involved in group choreography, you could not tell that Gabriella wasn’t a regular member of the cast.
Her delivery of ‘Out Tonight’ blew me away, with truthfulness in places that I’d never seen before which brought me new insight into the world of Mimi. It can be easy to go ‘oh no, the lead isn’t here’ when watching an understudy – and of course, we missed Maiya – but what an inspiration to watch an actor jump into a performance with minimal rehearsal and still deliver a mind-blowing performance.
Rent is all about connection, which Tom Francis (Roger) and Luke Bayer (Mark) delivered to us beautifully through their partnership. ‘What You Own’ is low-key one of my favourite songs in Rent – something about the lyrics of that song makes me incredibly emotional.
Bayer and Francis gave us all that emotion and then some. Tom Francis’ voice was made for the character of Roger – he delivers every belt with ease, while still bringing us Roger’s turmoil throughout the show. With Luke Bayer new to the cast this year, he fit into the role of Mark effortlessly – a perfect duo.
If we’re talking about partnerships, we also have to talk about Angel and Collins. Alex Thomas-Smith (Angel) and Dom Hartley-Harris (Collins) are superb in their respective roles – two characters that are so full of warmth and love, every moment they were on stage together I found my heart melting.
From Angel’s incredible introduction in ‘Today For You’, to the most heartbreaking reprise in the world of ‘I’ll Cover You’, the pair shined. Thomas-Smith’s delicate vocals create a beautiful contrast with Hartley-Harris’ soulful power – with the chemistry of two people who have a secret, I was enamoured with the pair of them. Just don’t talk to me about Thomas-Smith’s return in full Angel attire at the end – my heart is still aching…
Never have I witnessed a performance of ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ that was so effortless, nor so sexy. These two are powerhouses – Almgill (Joanne) has become one of my new favourite performers, and O’Connell (Maureen) had me appreciating the character of Maureen in a way that I haven’t before. ‘Over the Moon’ can be a hard one to deliver, but I was genuinely laughing throughout her rendition of the song. Two performers that I know I’ll be looking to for inspiration for years to come.
As for our Benny, Michael Ahomka-Lindsay was a dream – and it was his professional debut! Smooth vocals – which for Benny is a necessity – and constantly engaged in the action and reacting accordingly. I’m sure we’ll see this actor go far.
Last – but definitely not least – we have the ensemble. Rent would be nothing without this team of performers moving the show along with their multi-rolling and building the energy in the chorus numbers. Every actor is part of every moment in some way – the cast’s seats around the stage meant they were even more integrated than some other productions, which was an addition I adored.
Each ensemble member stood out to me during the show. I often found myself drawn to Isaac Hesketh when they were on stage, and I have no doubt when they take over the role of Angel they will be equally spellbinding.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Iona Fraser before, but I had no idea her vocals were so insane. You know that when someone makes you fist pump and cheer during the solo in ‘Seasons of Love’, they’re doing it properly – Iona, you’re a star and I’m blown away by you.
Alison Driver brought us moments of dance throughout the show, particularly during the drug dealer scenes, which added even more dimension. A firecracker to watch on stage – plus her role as Mark’s Mum was hilarious. When watching Karl Lankester I felt nothing but love from them – aside from when they were a grumpy homeless person of course.
Not only did Joe Foster bring us some incredible vocals during ‘Seasons of Love’, but the dance section during ‘Contact’ was ridiculously good – another one of those moments where I couldn’t take my eyes off of him the whole time.
I think it’s safe to say I was blown away by this performance. What a treat to experience it in person – I’m already upset that I can’t go back. The Hope Mill is a wonderful theatre, and this production was a testament to the work they do in our industry.
I’m so excited to see where these performers go next, and what magical work The Hope Mill Theatre has to offer us in the future. Rent is very nearly sold out, but if you want to find out more about The Hope Mill Theatre and their future productions you can follow them on Instagram @hopemilltheatre, or visit their website here.
Author: Charley Morgan, ICTheatre Graduate 2020