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Review: Spring Awakening (Hope Mill Theatre)

Luke Sheppard directs the new revival of the Tony Award-winning musical

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The cast of Spring Awakening
© Scott Rylander

Before Hamilton, another improbable musical reanimated the past with a fresh, contemporary sound. Back in 2006, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik had a huge Broadway hit based – improbably – on Frank Wedekind's startling 1891 play about repressed adolescent sexuality in prudish Victorian times. That it never quite took flight in the West End, closing within three months despite winning young devotees, makes it ripe for revival; another canny choice from Manchester's fast-rising fringe theatre, Hope Mill.

Luke Sheppard's compact staging is impressively slick. It plonks Wedekind's 19th-century youths – the boys buttoned into their britches, the girls bundled into bunched skirts – into a gloomy brick classroom, blocked in by blackboards. They recite Latin by rote and rewrite Virgil by hand, and they're caned into shape by a string of uptight and identikit adults: teachers, parents, doctors all played by the same two actors.

Gabriella Slade dots her design with dead butterfly collections and chalky fern diagrams – nature uprooted, classified and controlled – but the two branches bursting through broken window panes suggest that it can't be stopped. Growth will get through.

Because nothing can stifle the burgeoning sexuality that, denied by a society that deals only in euphemisms, can only take shape in secret. Jabez Sykes' quivering Moritz, his voice still breaking, his elbows jutting out like a fledgeling's wings, is tormented by nightly dreams he deems to be shameful, while Darragh Cowley's Melchior, the worldly star pupil, starts a course of sadistic sexual experimentation with Nikita Johal's prim and willing Wendla. Both, inevitably, fumble their way from ecstasy to tragedy.

Sheik's score restores their teen spirit like a double-strength hormone shot. Wedekind's buttoned-up kids take on the restless, rampant energy of today's teenagers thanks to blasts of upbeat, frenetic pop. It's smartly constructed. Singing together, early one, they turn out the sort of chirpy teeny-pop that sends kids sky-high – think One Direction playing for Queen Victoria – but alone, their solos and duets take a darker turn towards the thrashing, blaring pop-punk of Green Day or The Offspring. That rebellious sound is matched by Tom Jackson Greaves' irrepressible choreography, as if these young bodies are about to burst out of their seams, and the contagious energy builds to the show's best number, "Totally F**ked" – an unconstrained yell of angsty rebellion.

While Sheppard strains for a stadium aesthetic, relying too heavily on Nic Farman's colour-soaked lighting, his cast stretch for sex appeal with posturing and swagger. Only Cowley, soon to graduate from Guildford School of Acting, has the real magnetism of youthful vitality, though Teleri Hughes is a sunny, carefree presence as the school dropout Ilse who finds freedom elsewhere. For all it showcases the strength of Sheik's score – blistering, if inevitably immature – nothing can disguise the awkwardness of Sater's book, which condenses its subplots to the extent of erasing sexual plurality and irons out the complexities of Wedekind's original. As it bunnyhops between songs, it becomes clear why Spring Awakening won young fans without cutting through; a case of arrested, rather than arresting, development.

Spring Awakening runs at Hope Mill Theatre until 3 May.

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