Rent, Duke of York's, London

A low-rent entry to the West End
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The Independent Culture

It was a fight to get out of the Duke of York's Theatre on the opening night of this revival of Rent, Jonathan Larson's 1996 relocation of La Bohème to the Lower East Side and the age of Aids. The massed photographers hadn't, however, come to snap anyone in the cast. Apart from Denise van Outen, who sizzles tongue-in-cheek as an assertive, leather-clad lesbian, there's nobody in William Baker's production who was much known beforehand or who will be remembered because of it afterwards.

No, the paparazzi were there to point their lenses at Kylie Minogue and she was there because, as becomes ominously clear from the programme, this show's creative team are the creative team behind Kylie.

For this "remix" of Rent, gone is the grunge of the original staging and in come the production values of a rootless international pop concert. You'd want to put a deposit on the minimalist Manhattan-style loft – white brick walls, Perspex screens, metal ladder staircases – where this show about indigent Bohemians is now puzzlingly housed.

The plot never gave this piece a hard enough edge of confrontation – the landlord is a yuppified former room-mate with creative ambitions, not Count Rackrent – and here it comes across a joke. There's a superlatively duff moment when the protesters break back into the building through the totally unresisting empty space in a neon door-frame.

God knows, Hair was not a politically sophisticated piece, but it's like a treatise by Robert Nozick compared to the bland imbecility of Rent where, apparently, effective opposition to right-wing illiberalism is to gather for an anthem proclaiming "There's only now/ There's only here", a philosophy that had odd affinities with the purblind parochialism of rednecks.

The forgettable score manages to draw on rock, pop, blues, rap et al and drain the individuality from each influence. Given that Aids looms over the piece, it's amazing how little we get to know about it. From the way the demise of the strutting little queen Angel (Jay Webb) is presented, you'd imagine that death from the disease involves a raunchy tussle with a group of S&M specialists in leather scanties followed by an ascent up a ladder swathed in dry ice.

The cast are extremely hit-and-miss. In the role of Mark, Oliver Thornton, who delivers lines as if they were death threats to the script and with a grating lack of instinct for the so-called comedy, strips to the vest for the strenuously unsexy "Tango Maureen" with the girlfriend who ditched him for a lesbian.

He's supposed to be our guide to the Bohemian world, as he videos its behaviour. "How do you document real life," he asks, "when real life is getting more like fiction every day?" The solution would seem to be simple – you jettison really real life for generic templates.

Siobhan Donaghy's strangely sung Mimi (a smackhead dancer at the Cat Scratch Club – think Miss Adelaide with a syringe and no sense of humour) takes so long a-dying in the arms of Roger (Luke Evans) that she still hasn't fully expired by the time the lights dim at the end at the end of a long evening.

"How do you measure your life?" asks one of the songs. "In sunsets?" During this show, at any rate, mine was being measured in despairing glances at my watch. This isn't Hair and it isn't Hairspray. It's Hair Transplant and it marks a terrific lack of adventurousness in the West End.

The genuine heir (so to speak) to Hair that I have seen in the last year is the Broadway musical version of Wedekind's Spring Awakening, where, like an eternal metaphor for the disruptive power of sexual desire, rock music bursts through the worsted-clad Victorian repression of the personnel.

I'd hate to think that this anodyne revival of Rent will delay the much-hoped-for transfer of this piece or corrupt the taste that should greet it as the fall of manna in the desert.



Click here for Rent website

To 5 April (0870 060 6623)

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