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Spring Awakening at Stockwell Playhouse | Review

Spring Awakening - Photo by Eliza Wilmot
Spring Awakening – Photo by Eliza Wilmot

In western society, teenagers and sex go together like ham and eggs. Hundreds of plays and films revolve around that moment when a high school student has their first sexual encounter. If you’re an American there seems to be an unwritten rule that if you haven’t had sex by ‘prom’ then that is where you do it for the first time (around 14% of American high school girls lose their virginity on prom night, boys tend to lie about when they lose theirs). In a totalitarian society, however, where freedom is not allowed, teenagers may still have the same desires and wants when it comes to exploring sex but their opportunities are very limited leading to major issues at a vulnerable time in their lives. This then is the central concept in The British Theatre Academy’s production of Spring Awakening at the Stockwell Playhouse.

Following the birth of her sister’s second child, Wendla Bergmann (Charlotte Coe) is a young girl with a question on her mind – where do babies come from? Her mother (Lydia Tuffy) refuses to tell her the details, or even give her any real clue, because sex is not something that is talked about, ever. Wendla finds out that her friends – Martha (Sadie Hurst), Thea (Merel van ‘t Hooft), Anna (Elizabeth Rose) and Ilse (Ginnie Thompson) – have all come across the same brick wall when trying to discuss sex and reproduction. Whilst the other girls are frustrated by this lack of discussion, Wendla becomes obsessed with finding out more. Meanwhile, the boys’ class is also having problems as puberty takes hold. This is particularly true of Moritz Stiefel (James Knudsen) who confesses to his best friend, the rebellious and highly intelligent Melchior Gabor (Max Harwood) that he has been having some highly vivid and erotic dreams and that he is worried he may be going insane. Melchior and his other friends – Ernst (James Dodd), Hänschen (Jamie Heward), Otto (Kingsley De Costa) and Georg (Dafydd Lansley) – try to reassure Moritz that not only is he not going insane but they are all going through similar nocturnal imaginings themselves. So there you have it. Lots of pubescent teenagers with enquiring minds in a society where conformity and respect for God, parents and teachers are the basic tenets of life. A powder keg of hormones and attitude just waiting for a spark to set off the explosion.

With music by Duncan Sheik and a book and lyrics by Steven Sater, Spring Awakening is based on an 1891 German play of the same name by Frank Wedekind. Whilst there are some good moments in the show, I’m afraid I really didn’t connect with it at all. Maybe, I am not the right demographic for the writing – in the end, I was having trouble understanding the point of the story. According to Wikipedia, it is set in late nineteenth century Germany but apart from a few German signs and someone who inexplicably decides to count his press-ups in German rather than English, there is no clear indication to time and place. This may be deliberate showing how things are the same in all such repressive societies but, when combined with the definitely early 2000s music it is slightly confusing. Some of the staging decisions left me slightly confused, such as why Hänschen who claims that he is someone that will “bide his time, and let the system work for him” suddenly decides to wear a dress in this repressive community.

The story is pretty simple, I think. Teenagers in a repressed society hit puberty, discover sex and start to rebel. It’s a fairly old story and somehow, doesn’t feel that well told with this version. Having said that, there are some pretty good songs in the show, “Totally F*cked” is one that instantly springs to mind, along with “The Word of Your Body” and the haunting and emotionally vivid “The Dark I Know Well”.

Turning to the production and, once again, The British Theatre Academy has assembled a really good cast to bring the show to life. Charlotte Coe has an excellent voice and makes the most of Wendla’s numbers as does Max Harwood in the role of Melchior. The two of them also look and sound good during their duets and, it was fairly easy to see them as a couple looking for something and finding each other. James Knudsen gives a spirited performance as Moritz and looks very happy once his character changes planes of existence. Also, a mention has to go to Lydia Tuffy and Joseph Heron who play all of the adult female and male characters respectively. This is quite demanding with a variety of accents coming in to play to differentiate the 14 adults with whom the teenagers engage. Due to the very fixed nature of the costumes – everyone wore a sort of uniform – it was occasionally difficult to instantly grasp which adult was which but apart from that, it was a great set of performances from Lydia and Joseph. On the whole, Director Dean Johnson makes really good use of the space available – including the various side doors and PJ McEvoy’s set and costumes really add resonance to the totalitarian and repressive nature of the place inhabited by the characters. Finally, full credit to MD Jordan Li-Smith and the band which – despite the poor acoustics from where I was sitting – sounded really good.

All in all then, whilst there were some strong performances and many elements to admire in this production, I’m afraid Spring Awakening really didn’t work for me. And one final point, whilst it is nice to have background music when taking your seat, that music really shouldn’t be so loud that you can’t have a chat with the person in the next seat.

3 Star Review

Review by Terry Eastham

The winner of 8 Tony Awards, including Best Musical – told by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater through “the most gorgeous Broadway score this decade” (Entertainment Weekly) – Spring Awakening explores the journey from adolescence to adulthood with poignancy and passion that is illuminating and unforgettable. The landmark musical is an electrifying fusion of morality, sexuality and rock & roll that is exhilarating audiences across the nation like no other musical in years.

This youth production is presented by arrangement with Music Theatre International (Europe).

Spring Awakening
Thursday, August 16, 2018 7:30 PM
Saturday, August 18, 2018 7:30 PM
http://www.stockwellph.com/

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