Review: Without You – Menier Chocolate Factory, London

Actors are often advised to draw on their own life experiences to shape their performances. When that life experience includes the death of two of your closest friends and the raw emotion of the death of your own mother to cancer you might expect an actor to shy away from digging too deep into their pain.
For Anthony Rapp though, his stage adaptation of his best-selling memoir Without You , not only explores these deeply personal events but engages his audience so well that we feel that we also know these departed people and morn their loss.

Rapp shapes the evening around the musical RENT, the show that was his breakthrough – even though he’d been performing professionally since the age of nine. From his tentative audition singing REM’s Losing My Religion we follow Rapp’s journey through RENT workshops and off Broadway run before the first tragedy strikes. On the eve of opening night, composer Jonathan Larson died unexpectedly. For a musical focusing on the impact of death it was a devastating time for the cast and crew, many close friends of Larson.

RENT of course went on to become a major Broadway hit and Rapp uses key musical numbers from the score to accompany his own life story.

By the time Rapp brings the audience to the subject of his mother’s battle with cancer and her eventual death he has us in the palm of his hand. As he steps into the spotlight to sing Without You, a song from RENT he sang at her funeral, the sound of muffled sobs fills the auditorium. As the song finishes and Rapp mouths a silent ‘thank you’ to his mother the emotion is almost too much to bear.

Before you get the impression though that this is a depressing evening think again. Rapp tempers the sadness with a genuine charm; he acknowledges that those he’s lost are real people with their own imperfections but that the grief at their loss is also a celebration of their life.

It’s a slick delivery that never falters, over a brief 80 minutes we share so much of Rapp’s life that it seems we have spent the evening sat with a friend. Simple staging, and effective lighting (Timothy Bird, Ellan Parry and Tim Mascall) help give the piece some texture but there’s a feeling that this is a show that would work equally well with Rapp sat on a bare stage surrounded by his audience.

Accompanied by an accomplished five piece on stage band, led by musical director Daniel A Weiss, the mood shifts from plaintive to rock as required but never swamps the performer.

Moving, uplifting and at times totally devastating, it’s a credit to Rapp that he can put himself through such an emotional journey each night. He seems genuinely touched by the reaction from his audience but his warmth and engaging style makes the audience feel like they are part of his family.

While a knowledge of RENT may help understand the context, this is such a deeply human, honest and personal story that there is something for everyone who has ever loved or lost to connect with. With such skill and warmth Mary must be looking down on her son with extreme pride.

A devastating example of the power of love. Stunning.

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