Book and Lyrics: Stephen Sater
Music: Duncan Sheik
Director: Dean Johnson
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
It is not difficult to understand why Frank Wedekind’s play Spring Awakening was deemed so shocking when it was written in 1891. The tale of teenagers embarking on multiple paths of sexual discovery in defiance of the triple authoritarian regimes of parents, teachers and the church was certainly audacious for the time and, one suspects, would still be so regarded in many religiously driven communities today.
Stephen Sater and Duncan Sheik’s contemporary rock musical adaptation gives young people the voice to express the violent, turbulent emotions that puberty can bring. For a medium such as musical theatre, which tends to prefer a sanitised, romanticised view of love, the shock of Wedekind’s work is still apparent.
The strongest vocals in the cast belong to Charlotte Coe’s Wendla, a girl whose mother (Lydia Tuffy, who plays all the adult female roles just as Joseph Heron plays all the men) refuses to discuss where babies come from. As Melchior, the boy from the neighbouring school who learns all about sex from books and shares his knowledge with his peers, Max Harwood may not have the strongest voice or largest frame, but still conveys the sense of authority that the characters requires.
Dominating throughout is James Knudsen’s Moritz, whose utter incomprehension at the changes occurring in him come to dominate so much that he starts failing at school, sending him into a depressive spiral. The power of Knudsen’s belt may not quite be matched by pitch control – a noticeable trait in several of these actors – but in many ways that adds to the rawness, the reality of these characters, their changing bodies betraying them as they refuse to be controlled.
A rather sweet second act romance between schoolboys Ernst and Hanschen is the closest the play comes to out and out romance. James Dodd and Jamie Hewardboth give sweet, delicate performances that counterbalance some of the musical’s darker moments. It is a shame that Sater’s script doesn’t really integrate their story with the principals’ enough, though, ensuring it remains an entertaining diversion, but nothing more.
The band, led by musical director Jordan Li-Smith, ensure Sater and Sheik’s songs bristle with energy. The show’s best tunes are its big, uptempo rock numbers, which dominate over its wispy, dreamlike ballads.
Given the rawness of subject matter on stage, it is curious that the programme chooses to be so coy, obscuring song titles ‘The B**** of Living’ and ‘Totally F*****’. Audiences are watching a play in which teenagers explore sexual fantasy, BDSM roleplay, masturbation, homosexuality, homophobic violence, pregnancy and backstreet abortion, so a couple of rude words in a theatre programme seem pale by comparison.
But maybe that leans into one of the points of Spring Awakening. By hiding away what is deemed inappropriate from the teenagers who crave knowledge, the adults may believe that they are protecting their charges: but instead, they seal their children’s fate, even as they evade responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. Despite being based on a tale that is over 125 years old, this is a tale that has much to say to today’s adults and the children who look to them for guidance.
Runs until August 18 2018 | Image: Eliza Wilmott