Date 6th November 2021
Society Sunderland Theatre Company
Venue The Royalty Theatre, Sunderland
Type of Production Musical
Director Brian Leach
Musical Director Jenni Watson
Choreographer Megan Crooks


Author: Helen Abraham

From the moment I walked in the door of the Royalty Theatre in Sunderland attending Sunderland Theatre Company’s production of Rent, I was greeted so warmly with open arms, smiles and in essence utter relief that this long awaited performance could go on!  Sunderland TCo are such a warm welcoming engaging group to everyone; entirely inclusive to all ages backgrounds and abilities; forward thinking and have done a sterling job in keeping their members engaged through the pandemic and it showed. 

Rent itself is something of a marmite show, you find people love it or hate it.  I personally love it.  Jonathan Larson, the show’s creator, his story alone is beautifully tragic and I loved the way Sunderland TCo played testament to him with quotations being projected to the audience as a wonderful tribute to his genius.  The story is one of acceptance, love, living life for now, not taking life for granted and no regrets.  Based loosely on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, Rent is a celebration of life itself.

We started with some fabulous colour being introduced in clever lighting provide by Brightstar Light and Sound with the Rent lettering physically on stage as we were introduced to the cast via a rendition of Seasons of Love in a slight departure to the traditional scripted sequence.  It was a lovely soft introduction with the Larson quotations being projected simultaneously.  Brian Leach – what a voice!  Brian is a superb talented director and I’d forgotten just how good his voice is as he’s more often than not found off stage.  He took the second solo and absolutely blew me away from the start.  Rebecca Crackett, also taking on the role of Joanne Jefferson also utterly astounded me with her voice in this number and ongoing in her role. Absolutely stunning Rebecca, never stop being heard.  She has a consistent beautiful rich quality to her voice and a mature calm portrayal of her character Joanne.

Brian as a director always puts his own touch on the shows he directs and his was no different with the clever use of comedic moments and notably the introduction of a visual representation of April, Roger’s girlfriend who died by suicide prior to the events in the musical after discovering her and Roger had AIDS.  Although April makes a brief appearance in the film version of “One Song Glory” it’s unusual to see her in a stage performance.  I really liked it, I thought it made a lovely touch and cleverly linked to the introduction of Mimi.  “Light My Candle” can be an odd song to perform I think, I find the tempo a little laborious but Richard and Gabrielle did brilliantly, well-acted and they gave the song another dimension.

Richard Butler as Roger – wow what a difference in him!  Richard really stepped up vocally and emotionally to bring a different side to Roger that I’ve not seen before.  We saw Roger’s vulnerability as well as his rock star persona, something often missed when that character is portrayed.  Really well done Richard.

Kristian Bailey…  Take a bow young man.  You have emerged as a strong stunning performer.  Your voice is beautiful and your portrayal of Angel was authentic and genuine.  Angel was given a softness which sometimes can be missed.  You’ve just really made your mark on Sunderland TCo with what you have done as Angel.  I really look forward to seeing more of you.  My only improvement for you would be a pointed toe on dancing/movement but that’s just the pedantic dancer in me coming out!  I loved you as Angel.  Well done.

Mathew Clarke, always consistently strong in his abilities, always reliable and for this performance a steady narrator as Mark Cohen.  The performance space they have at the Royalty, its small and restrictive but the best use of space was made.  It was just a shame for numbers like “Life Support” which can be so effective that there’s just not a lot of room for the ensemble to really make more use in that theatre.  Mathew moved cleverly to ensure he covered the stage documenting the going on as Mark without blocking anyone which can in itself be very difficult.  Who knew you could Tango?? (point your toes though Mat!) and I loved the reversed hold used between him and Joanne – well done Megan Crooks as choreographer for some very clever simplistic choreography which gave this number exactly what it needed.  “Halloween” was equally excellently done and summed up for the audience the character arcs of the cast.

Stephen Fay did a great job bringing Benjamin Coffin III to life, with a comedic touch rather than the sleazy corporate persona often seen with that character, well done Stephen!

Gabrielle Smith as Mimi Marquez……wow.  Gabrielle was very poorly when she auditioned successfully for Mimi and boy did she show her audiences exactly why Mimi was her part.  She looked absolutely stunning on stage and utterly commanded that scaffold on “Out Tonight” with some extremely daring choreography.  She made the audience understand addiction, she was genuine and portrayed Mimi’s story and her and Roger’s respective roads to recovery from their respective vices.  You were drawn to her on stage, despite being very slight in stature, Gabrielle makes up for it with stage presence and her fantastic (and daring) wardrobe which she pulled off to perfection.

Helen Smurthwaite has the entire auditorium mooing with her portrayal of Maureen Johnson, no mean feat!  She brought that number to life brilliantly which is tough.  “Over the Moon” still makes absolutely no sense to me despite having directed the show previously so for Helen to engage the audience and have them all mooing is incredible.

“Take Me or Leave Me” from Helen and Joanne was very well performed, controlled and not shouted as can happen.   “Without You” with Gabrielle and Richard was soft and authentic, very effective.  Well done to Jenni Watson who took over late in the day after the departure of two other Musical Directors for her control and guidance to the cast members in bringing these numbers across so well.

“I’ll Cover You (reprise)” performed by Nathan Dippie as Tom Collins was utterly stunning and I really don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.  He began with a beautiful softness building to a crescendo, supported by Samantha Kennedy which perfectly encapsulated Collins grief at the loss of Angel.  Gorgeous performance Nathan and Sam.

“You Are What You Own” is my personal favourite song of the entire show and Richard and Mat absolutely did it justice.  I found myself not wanting it to end.  Well done you two.  The film sequence which was played was really well put together of rehearsal shots and sequences from the cast and gave it another lovely personal touch especially the personal tributes to Jonathan Larson himself.

There were some sound issues on the performances I saw in that the ensemble were very hard to hear, the balance on “Happy New Year” went a little awry and the cues for the principal personal mikes seemed to lag a little but nothing which deflected from the all-round production.

I didn’t manage to catch the two ladies names who were sat behind me who insisted on singing every single word to the score throughout to credit them in the review.  Unfortunately they were somewhat distracting when I really wanted to hear more of the Company.  Perhaps they should join Sunderland TCo and take part in the next one which I understand will be “Curtains” and I look forward to seeing that in April 2022.