Photos: Dujonna Gift-Simms

Luke Sheppard’s acclaimed production of Rent has opened at Manchester’s queer-run Hope Mill Theatre.

We’ve been meaning to check out Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre for a while, having featured some of their digital content during lockdown, but we’ve only recently made it up to see a show in-person. What a show to start with, though – their production of Rent has been a huge critical success and is routinely playing to sell-out audiences. We can see why – during our visit, we were blown away by the quality of this show.

Directed by Luke Sheppard – director of West End smash &Juliet and, more recently, the wonderful My Son’s a Queer at London’s Turbine Theatre – Rent is a musical telling the story of squatter Mark, a freelance film maker, and his best friend Roger who wants to write just one good song before he dies of an AIDS-related illness. Alongside their impoverished artist friends, they’re struggling to pay their rent money as Christmas approaches. Like so many shows over the last 18 months it’s not had an easy route to the stage – the autumn 2020 run closed a few nights after opening due to lockdown, so it’s great to see it back on stage delighting audiences again.

This is a show full of great performances. In particular we enjoyed the always-likeable Luke Bayer as Mark and Alex Thomas-Smith as drag queen Angel, who enjoys some show-stopping moments; but this is very much an ensemble piece and each cast member delivers. It’s a show that packs a genuine emotional punch, and these talented actors really take us on a journey through all the highs and lows (and there are indeed some very low points) of these characters’ lives.

It’s worth reflecting on the fact that there’s been a lot of unhelpful discourse recently about whether certain actors should be able to play particular roles. This production nullifies that argument entirely – this is a hugely diverse cast, featuring numerous actors identifying as LGBTQ+ and non-binary, and each excels in their respective roles. Those harbouring regressive views about gender and sexuality should do themselves a favour and check this show out – they’d be hard pressed to find fault with any of the casting here.

We adored this staging of Rent – it may at times deal with some tricky subject matter, but it’s hugely enjoyable to watch from start to finish. The production is smart and nimble, the acting and singing is first-rate, the staging and choreography subtly brilliant. It always warms our little gay hearts to see so many queer creatives involved in the creation of a show as genuinely wonderful as this one – for those in the Manchester vicinity over the coming weeks we’d highly recommend picking up a ticket for this while you can. Superb stuff.

GAY TIMES gives Rent – 5/5

More information can be found here.