With unforgiving and refreshing frankness, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Tony award-winning Spring Awakening, has had a profound impact on the musical theatre community since it debuted on Broadway in 2007. Based on the highly controversial and oft-censored 1891 play by Frank Wedekin, it centres on a group of misguided and repressed 19th Century German adolescents, as they navigate their way through their budding sexuality, in a culture of ignorance and depression.
Since then, the American musical has emerged as a campaigning force and even now, over a century after Wedekin’s seminal play was written, its themes and motives are still achingly relevant. In fact, upon entering Stockwell Playhouse, you’d be forgiven for thinking The British Theatre Academy had set the piece in early 21stCentury America. Angst-filled tracks from My Chemical Romance blast through the sound system and an intense fog completely masks the space, evoking all the energy and intensity of a rock fuelled concert. Instead, director Dean Johnson has transported the piece forward only a few decades to early 20th Century Germany, pre-WW2 and a period steeped in oppression, persecution and political crisis. The sign of the cross is mounted proudly centre stage and designer PJ McEvoy constructs a stark, metallic set, reflective of the economic hardship of the era. Gender symbols are juxtaposed on the arms of every boy and girl, each dressed in traditional German peasant fashions. Such a meagre jump in time seems unnecessary and the differences between late 19th century Germany & early 20thcentury Germany are never distinguishable enough to note.
What theatre does not have enough of is actual teenagers playing teenage roles and the fact that a lot of the performers got their A-Level results on opening night, is a true testament to their professional dedication and hard work. Max Harwood and Charlotte Coe, play the tenderness of young lovers Melchior and Wendla perfectly, with James Knudsen providing some strong moments as the anxious Moritz. Gay characters are frequently portrayed as a punchline and despite the exception of one scene, Jamie Heward’s, Georg and Dafydd Lansley’s, Hanschen are shown as real people with real emotions and motivations; both representing beautifully two teenage youths exploring their sexuality together. The standout performances of the supporting ensemble also help boost this production and whilst all the frustration and pent-up anger of the young cast is palpable, when it comes to the intense sexuality of the piece, the placing of hands robotically over the body is not enough to portray the deep and sensual awakening of teenage longing and it’s in the performance of lines and lyrics dealing with the darker aspects of the show, where the youth of the cast becomes its undoing.
Musical fanatics will most likely be aware of the politics behind many popular productions, however, as a self-confessed Spring Awakening virgin, the discovery of a musical that asks important and necessary questions about how young people are shaped for their future, by a generation that doesn’t understand them, has proven a game changer.