Done to death by companies up and down the country over the past few years, Jonathan Larson's RENT can't quite be accused of being underexposed. As a result, it's a bit of a struggle to summon much enthusiasm about a new London production (particularly when there's another one waiting to open shortly after this one closes) but unless you've attended the Pulitzer Prize-winning rock opera at its peak on Broadway, you're unlikely to have seen it done as well as it currently is being at the Greenwich Theatre.
The production, directed with great flair by Paul Taylor-Mills, is markedly faithful to the original, with the kind of set, costumes and arrangements you might expect, but deviates just enough at various points to lend it its own identity. Some of these touches work very well indeed (La Vie Boheme's choreography is given a nifty rhythmic makeover by Richard Jones) but the changes aren't entirely successful - one of the show's iconic moments, as the cast lines up along the stage to begin Act II, is absent as 'Seasons of Love' instead opens with just a soloist. While said performer (Maeve Byrne) goes on to earn mid-song applause with an astonishing vocal range, surely if there's any song which should be immune from tinkering, it's that one.
Byrne's isn't the only voice that wows; as Joanne, Jamie Birkett is excellent and the show's more familiar faces (Zoe Birkett from Pop Idol and Over the Rainbow's Steph Fearon) are vocally exceptional. Fearon's Mimi is every bit as sexy, fragile and likeable as she needs to be - instead of rolling my eyes at the character's ludicrous dénouement, I was actually rather pleased - while Birkett's performance as madcap performance artist Maureen is nothing short of barnstorming. She's fearless, and a joy to watch. (A health warning: fans of ladies doing enormo-riffs may find themselves slipping into a joy-induced coma during 'Take Me Or Leave Me'.)
The male cast suffers slightly by comparison, although Ben Watts' Mark is thoroughly charming and echoes Anthony Rapp's performance in the best possible way, while the busy ensemble is greatly enriched by Richie Gooding, whose lovely opening of 'Will I?' is a highlight. That said, the night belongs to Gary Wood, whose Angel is a beautiful creation. A tricky character to get right, Angel is the beating heart of RENT, and Wood's portrayal - sassy, full of life and instantly loveable - is pretty much perfect. It's a slight shame that the staging of 'Without You' doesn't give his suffering quite enough attention, although the candle procession that takes place simultaneously is a nice touch.
The crowd I saw it with seemed utterly delighted, springing to their feet at the first opportunity post-Finale. While there may well have been friends and family members of the cast in attendance, the ovation felt bigger than that, and like the genuine response of a thoroughly entertained audience to an excellent production of what's become a classic show. So while there's no shortage of RENT productions on offer, it would be a mistake to miss this one: it's about as good as it gets.