Saturday, 1 January 2022

Theatre review: Spring Awakening

I'm starting 2022 as I'd like it to go on, not only with a show that got cancelled at the end of 2021, but one which proves an absolutely storming opener to the year: Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik's (music) Spring Awakening is the musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind's radical 19th century play about teenagers' repressed sexualities and the devastating consequences of their parents keeping the realities of the world from them. The pop-rock songs are an anachronistic jolt from the 1890s German setting of the dialogue scenes, but it's surprising how much of the plot - that encompasses teenage pregnancy, abortion, suicide and same-sex relationships - comes straight from Wedekind. Friends since childhood, the teenagers have been separated into single-sex schools and discouraged from meeting each other.

But at the boys' school, Melchior (Laurie Kynaston) isn't content with just learning Greek and Latin by rote, and takes it upon himself to educate himself and his classmates on women's bodies and what they're supposed to do with them. Over at the girls' school, the facts of life are down to their mothers, and Wendla's (Amara Okereke) mother is unwilling to share any version that doesn't feature a stork. So when she and Melchior start to become attracted to each other, she's much less canny than he is about what the effects could be on her body.

I really like Spring Awakening, which has a very high hit rate of instantly catchy songs, but Vanessa absolutely loves it, which is why we've seen it together multiple times (three for the original production alone, plus touring and drama school versions.) So I had to do a double take at the fact that this is actually the first professional London revival. Rupert Goold's production takes its cue from Greta Thunberg, and the topicality of young people angrily rejecting their elders telling them to shut up and accept what they're told without challenge (it's an influence explicitly acknowledged during "Totally Fucked" - always the musical's standout rousing moment, I've never seen it delivered so angrily and with so much purpose.)

Miriam Buether's multilevel set is a huge staircase reminiscent of the Open Air production of Evita, but hiding a lot more surprises, tricks and trapdoors; it provides a black background that Finn Ross's projections turn into a blackboard, first for the kids to copy down their lessons verbatim, then increasingly for their messages of rebellion. The stairs are also one of the things that help make Lynne Page's choreography such a standout element, whether the rest of the cast are acting out the piano keys in Georg's (Joe Pitts) music lesson, Hanschen and Ernst (Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea and Zheng Xi Yong) sliding down them during the reprise of "The Word of Your Body," or the entire cast crashing imposingly down towards the audience step by step during "Totally Fucked."

There's some interesting takes on the characters - tragic daydreamer Moritz always tends to steal the show, and Stuart Thompson's gentle Geordie version is no exception. The character is inexplicably hated by all the adults (theoretically it's because his bad grades bring the school's averages down, but we also know the teachers are deliberately manipulating his grades so he'll fail.) Here it's very discreetly suggested some gender ambiguity might be behind this prejudice against him - as well as Thompson's vulnerable performance and the kilt he wears, costume desginer Nicky Gillibrand puts him in black and yellow, which in the first act is established as the girls' colour scheme versus the boys' black and white (this colour scheme gets a bit more fluid in the second act as the kids get bolder.) There's also Carly-Sophia Davies' Ilse, much more explicitly a lost soul than in past productions: They've tended to more or less present at face value her story that since getting kicked out of home she's been living in an artist's commune; Goold's version has her wander the stage barefoot and dirty, mentally cracking and wishing she could revert to childhood.

There's also no punches pulled in Martha's (Bella Maclean) "The Dark I Know Well" about being abused and unable to tell anyone, but of course Spring Awakening is far from relentlessly bleak: One of its particular qualities is its ability to jump between wildly varying tones effectively - Armarkwei-Laryea's Hanschen is a regular comic highlight, and in the infamous scene of him wanking to a painting of Desdemona he gets an audience member to hold the picture up so he can have keep both hands free. All the adult roles (Mark Lockyer and understudy Mali O'Donnell) were initially conceived as being indistinguishable from each other, all having conformed, but here they're exaggerated, dusty grotesques, the headmaster even wearing a clown mask.

Sater and Sheik have been involved with this revival, restructuring slightly and bringing in a previously cut song - Act 2 now opens with "There Once Was a Pirate," which replaces "The Guilty Ones" and also comes in as a late reprise during the graveyard scene. There's also new orchestrations befitting a more intimate space and a darker intepretation of the story. Although it still works on a literal level about young people being kept in the dark about their own bodies, making it a metaphor for Generation Z's current and wider concerns makes this a Spring Awakening that's darker and angrier, without losing any of its triumphant, explosive energy. It'll be interesting to see what the future is for Goold's production - it's had a sell-out run and rave reviews, but so did the original which sank without trace in the West End. But it'd be a shame if more people didn't get the chance to see it, especially with some of the performances cancelled - maybe a limited transfer, or a return to the Almeida at the end of the year?

Spring Awakening by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, based on the play by Frank Wedekind, is booking until the 22nd of January at the Almeida Theatre (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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