“Rent”, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Paradise in Augustines – The Sanctuary
Retrospective review: run finished.

Maggie Rose in Edinburgh

21 August 2023

Multi-award winning musical Rent was revived by Bare Productions at Paradise in Augustines during the 2023 Fringe. The musical, loosely drawing on Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème and first performed in 1993 in a workshop production at New York’s Theatre Workshop, has been continually revived ever since to astounding critical and audience acclaim in many different cultures and languages.

It tells the story of a group of destitute artists struggling to survive in Lower Manhattan’s East Village in the late twentieth century at a time when rents were soaring, making it impossible for many of them to continue living there. Add to that the AIDS crisis, a virus which still had no proper treatment, and you have all the ingredients for a deeply dramatic and tragic story.

Outside Augustines, a long queue is waiting for returns on this the last night of Rent. Once inside the auditorium those of us lucky enough to have tickets, are immediately plunged into the grim everyday life of two friends in Manhattan, filmmaker Mark and musician Roger, as they huddle together to keep warm one freezing Christmas Eve. Their landlord, a former friend, has decided to switch off the heating since they are so behind with their rent.

Mimi, a dancer, with a heroin addiction, starts flirting with Roger, while his ex-girlfriend Maureen, together with her partner Joanne, begin preparing a petition in defence of some squatters threatened with eviction. Their friend Collins is attacked and rescued by a drag queen, named Angel, sparking a very special friendship.

The deftly crafted script by Jonathan Larson, who also wrote the music and lyrics, ensures that these variegated strands, and others, come slowly and smoothly together, the characters falling in love, holding AIDS meetings, some dying of AIDS or addiction. Larson’s excellent musical score and songs, in the hands of this ensemble, bring the work to full fruition.

Director Dominic Lewis, out of necessity or choice, has opted for an almost bare stage, simple costumes and a minimum of props when needed, allowing his cast of versatile, talented performer/singers to do the rest.

The beautiful relationship, with it poignantly tragic ending, between Collins (Andrew Gardner) and Angel ( Rory McKean), is deeply moving and remains in the mind, as does the fraught encounter between Mimi (Freya Rivero) and Roger (Nick Thomlinson), whose determined struggled against drug addictions has left its toll.

The excellent production is all the more inspiring since this is an amateur group. For a second year, the show was completely sold out before its short run at Augustines (4th to 12th August), a sign of the popularity of, and continued relevance of the piece.

Although treatment for HIV has improved radically in the three decades since the musical was written, the themes of friendship, gender identities, exorbitant rents and inner-city poverty remain very relevant.

At the heart of Bare Productions is a community spirit, seen in their productions since 2017 of small-scale musicals and in the recent foundation of an Academy to nurture local talent.