Wed 7th – Sat 10th March 2012


Michael McLauchlan

at 09:36 on 8th Mar 2012



Unfortunately, Jonathan Larson never lived to see his crowning dramatic achievement be performed on stage. He died a day before the opening night of RENT, which simply echoed his explosive and poignant “no day but today” legacy – we must all live life to its fullest as we never know what might happen tomorrow. As a fervent fan of the musical, I was worried whether DULOG would do him homage. However, I felt the cast more than fulfilled his legacy. They breathed Larson’s life and soul into their performance, thus making me leave the theatre with watery eyes, a big satisfying smile, and a sore throat (I can safely say I sang “Seasons of Love” all the way back to Hild Bede).

Douglas Gibbs’ choice of cluttering the set with urban metal frames, and initially lighting the stage with a cold blue wash, effectively conveys RENT’s claustrophobic atmosphere of bitter realism. This was further enhanced by the intelligent manoeuvre of cramming the band on stage. It was gratifying to see the backstage engineering of the theatre in the spotlight; a decision which perfectly encapsulated the musical’s Bohemian traits of never abiding by the conventional rules. On this note, I highly applaud the musical directors Luke Robbins and Dave Collins for orchestrating such a fantastic band. The music is the driving momentum of Larson’s masterpiece; however it is notably challenging and varied. The constant modulations from pop to rock music, amidst sound effects and other distractions, could have weakened the integrity of the piece. A strong sense of rapport between the band members averted this, thus allowing the music to perfectly accompany the actors, despite a couple of technical issues involving microphones and lighting cues.

I should also praise Rowan Williams-Fletcher and Charlotte Atkinson, the choreographers, for creating opportunities for more fluency and expression in RENT. The blocking and movement in “Contact” was sublime, effectively creating the intense atmosphere of carnal lust and desire. They also designed new choreographies for songs that originally had no routine, giving a breath of fresh air for the avid Broadway Rent spectator. This was noted in “Out Tonight” with the successful implementation of provocative dancers from the Cat Scratch Club. I did observe some problems with synchronisation, but after further thought, I realised, “shouldn’t most things in RENT jar”?

Perhaps what makes RENT so addictive is the characters, their own unique stories, and their woven assemblage as one family. It seems fairly obvious that Gibbs made it requisite for his cast members to spend as much time together as possible to build bridges of friendship, which translated beautifully onto the stage. This was clearly observed with Joe Leather (Angel) and Simon Lynch (Collins) depicting an incredibly convincing romantic couple. Leather’s uncanny use of falsetto was in perfect equilibrium with Lynch’s profound baritone voice in “I’ll Cover You”, making any audience member immediately sympathise with these lovable characters. As individuals, they were also striking. Leather’s physicality as a drag queen was impressive, which invited a voluminous cheering from the audience. Lynch, however, delivered his lines with such poise and intensity, which was epitomised when he voiced the heart-breaking “my heart has expired” line in “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)”.

Equally as impressive, Natasha Cowley (Maureen) and Hannah Davenport (Joanne) perfectly enacted a passionate relationship between two very different women. Davenport’s singing was sweet and intense, which contrasted nicely with Cowley’s mind-blowing belting techniques in “Take Me or Leave Me” (perhaps making her Durham’s next Idina Menzel?). It should also be mentioned that Cowley’s “Over the Moon” was one of the highlights of the show, as she perfectly identified the several comic nuances and delivered them with confidence and eccentricity.

James Hyde (Roger) and Elissa Churchill (Mimi) also delivered solid performances of two lovers. Churchill delivered a stunning vocal performance, notably in “Out Tonight” and “Without You”, effectively showing Mimi’s rebellious yet delicate nature. Hyde slowly blossomed into his bitter-sweet role and made an outstanding use of his powerful rock voice with “Your Eyes”. This can be paralleled with Michael Forde, who gave an impressive performance as the excited and sensitive Mark, and Karim Mariey, with his brilliant take on the cold insensitive Benny.

I personally think one of the strongest elements of the performance was the chorus, and I therefore highly congratulate Gibbs for building such a strong ensemble. Highlights were Timmy Fisher with his solo in “Will I?”, and Denver Clayton Moore Jr. and Sarah Hollinshead with their spine-tingling moments in “Seasons of Love”. It was such a pleasure to see a cast where everyone was as equally talented and equally passionate about Larson’s work.

All in all, this production has been the most entertaining, emotional and poignant piece of theatre I have seen so far in Durham. And remember there is “no day but today” to buy your tickets – get them now!


Julia Chapman

at 10:01 on 8th Mar 2012



Three years I have longed for someone in Durham to put on RENT, one of the greatest musicals of all time and a personal favourite. Finally my wishes were answered in an enthralling, electric, and exciting production, nearly perfect if not particularly innovative.

The enormous thematic issues of bohemianism, homosexuality, and AIDS were tackled with sensitivity and gravitas. These were not belaboured didactically but simply identified to an audience that may not entirely understand them. Angel, admirably portrayed by Joe Leather, is an immense task of a role which, if rendered farcical in the wrong hands, can undermine the entire point of the production. Fortunately, such moments were sparse, although not nonexistent.

Although by no means an original interpretation, DULOG’s production of RENT equalled the Broadway version in power and punch. Its pace, hasty at times, held he audience’s attention admirably, ensuring that not a dull moment could be spotted throughout. The musical is a cluttered one, so it was fitting that the stage was at times overpopulated, filling the set which was an excellent reproduction of the Broadway counterpart.

The show-stealing women in RENT didn’t even give the men a chance. Elissa Churchill as Mimi was, as usual, intoxicating. Her versatility continues to amaze, and her rendition of Without You was positively chilling. Natasha Cowley’s outstanding Maureen was particularly laudable for her performance of Over the Moon, a decisive number for the show’s success. However, Hannah Davenport as Joanne was the most memorable performer, truly disappearing into a character at once removed from and very much involved in the bohemian lifestyle of her lover and her friends. The Tango Maureen was both hilarious and beguiling, supported by the amusing reversal of gender roles of the back-up dancers. Davenport even managed to somehow make transitional songs like We’re Okay highlights of the show.

It is indicative of the astonishingly high quality of the production that the only plausible criticisms are purely pedantic. There was an overabundance of tartan, for example. Also someone should buy Elissa Churchill and Natasha Cowley some non-slip boots. Joe Leather’s skilful high-heeled acrobatics didn’t seem to suffer from the same slipperiness.

It wasn’t until the second half that the performers really found their stride. Simon Lynch, who had failed to impress earlier, sang the I’ll Cover You reprise with very moving emotional resonance. As soon as things took a turn for the tragic, the acting and singing took a turn for the incredible.

RENT is wonderful as a musical because it is so authentic and unafraid to offend. It’s about time someone produced it to shake up the stagnant, comfortable, middle-class bubble that is Durham. RENT proved that there are some Durham students who truly understand art.



John Sweeney; 11th Mar 2012; 04:21:50

great review julia!


John Sweeney; 11th Mar 2012; 04:24:23

you passed on the excitement of the production and that's what matters. brock did a production and university of guelph also this year. say hi to rachel. i have rights to do spring awakening ar ridley next year!

unity 1918!!! what a show!!!

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