Rent may have reached peak parody in the Team America: World Police film, but there's a reason it's become such a beloved musical over the last two decades: it remains a hugely powerful piece of storytelling.
That's as true as ever in this new 20th anniversary production at the St James Theatre that's soon to tour the country. It's rough, it's grimy, it's sexy and it's wonderfully imperfect.
It's cliché to see yet another 'raw and gritty' show, but that's absolutely the case here under the direction of Bruce Guthrie. The cast slither and pace across Anna Fleischle's detailed set that looks like it would genuinely smell if you got close enough (absolutely a compliment). Loren Elstein's costume and Betty Marini's hair and makeup design are also suitably rough yet creative for this bunch of artists, drag queens, lap dancers and vagabonds.
Yet it's the performances that show true grit, grounding the operatic melodrama (thanks to Puccini's La Bohème) in a dark and dangerous metropolis. From the depths of drug abuse, incurable disease and joblessness, a group of bohemians find sanctuary in each other. It's an arresting and riotous display of humanity with joyous highs, tragic lows and everything in between.
Layton Williams is a joy to watch as he slays his dance routines as the sassy cross-dressing Angel, but it's his relationship with Ryan O'Gorman's Tom Collins that's sensitive and deeply touching. Their partnership ripples across the remaining characters: the magnetic Maureen and Joanne (Lucie Jones and Shanay Holmes, offering awesome vocals), the flirtatious Mimi (Philippa Stefani) and conflicted Roger (Ross Hunter), and Billy Cullum's Mark Cohen still finding his feet in the world. They may tick boxes for equality and diversity, but rarely do musical theatre characters feel so real and with such current relevancy, even twenty years after the show premiered.
Musically, the cast and band certainly do justice to Larson's incredible score, wringing out every ounce of feeling amongst sweat and tears. Each song is not just an infectious hit but an explosion of emotion sung with clarity and soul, and accompanied by some emphatic choreography from Lee Proud. It's not always perfectly polished but that only adds to the show's appeal: the cracks only make the characters more human, the actors' performances more real.
This Rent is a goosebump inducing ride, a gut-wrenching production that's as life-affirming as it is tragic, as draining for the audience as it is for the actors. Seize the moment and see this show - there's no day but today.
Watch: Rent runs at the St James Theatre until 28th January, before touring the country.