WhatsOnStage Logo

Spring Awakening

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Fuelled by the five-star recommendations of colleagues and friends who’d seen it in New York or Hammersmith, my expectations for this show’s West End transfer were driven sky-high – and, with that, came the invariable dread that the reality couldn’t possibly match the hype. However, to my immense relief, I had nothing to fear.

Spring Awakening is everything it should be: fresh, exciting, enthralling, irreverent, hugely entertaining and performed with almost psychotic energy and exuberant abandon by a young cast in possession of bucketloads of talent. Of the three leads, it’s hard to take your eyes off Aneurin Barnard, a young Rufus Sewell lookalike with all the moody intelligence of his elder, as Melchior, or to be unmoved by Iwan Rheon, as his sleep-deprived friend Moritz with his electric shock mop, and Charlotte Wakefield, as the besotted but fatally ignorant Wendla. Also making a remarkable – and remarkably touching – debut, aged just 16, is Lucy Parker as the abused and abandoned Ilse, facing a future on the scrapheap.

The company and production – with its pulsing beats, swaying kaleidoscope of lights, angry choreography and thrillingly anachronistic clashes – works its magic on the audience with an almost hypnotic effect.

Expletives aside (with songs including “Totally Fucked”, this surely isn’t for the prudish), my one note of caution when booking concerns seating. My view from the stalls was perfect, but I’m told that those in the Novello’s top two levels experience serious sightline problems, with much of the action near the front of the stage. Even still, the producers’ pricing policy – with tickets starting at £10 and best available seats for young people at just £20 – mitigates against any complaints about value-for-money.

Spring Awakening is unlike anything else in the West End – it’s a hugely welcome addition and, like Avenue Q, should be just the ticket to make theatre affordable, accessible and attractive for a whole new generation of audiences.

- Terri Paddock

Frank Wedekind’s 1891 drama Spring Awakening, banned in most European countries for over 50 years, was given its first “private” performance in Britain at the Royal Court in 1963 in the same season as Barry Reckord’s Skyvers, a study of disaffected teenagers and repressive teachers in a London secondary school.

That mood of saying the unsayable or forbidden is brilliantly captured in this superb indie-rock musical adaptation of Wedekind’s play, in which the pounding emotional protest numbers and the tender lyrical songs express the interior lives of the adolescents, and Bill T Jones’ regimented choreography denotes the opposite, exterior frustrations in processional foot stomps and arm twitches à la Pina Bausch.

Michael Mayer’s production started out in the tiny Atlantic Theatre in New York and comes trailing Broadway glory and eight Tony awards. A year-long audition process has yielded a really wonderful young cast of British talent led by two Welsh boys – Aneurin Barnard as Melchior and Iwan Rheon as Moritz – who frankly knock any TV talent show contestants and winners of recent times into a total cocked hat.

Melchior is the bright boy who has discovered sex and atheism for himself and ends up in a brutal reformatory. Moritz is the archetypal victim of a school system that picks on him and drives him into tragic isolation. Their friendship runs parallel to Melchior’s budding love affair with Wendla (Charlotte Wakefield, another delightful discovery) whose mother simply won’t tell her the facts of life. All the adults – parents, teachers, doctors – are played by Sian Thomas and Richard Cordery.

All the children are dressed in late 19th-century costume while the theatrical language of lights, sound and music is abrasively modern. The seven-man rock band occupies the school gym setting with the actors and some audience members sitting on bleachers at the side. The world of the play is a constellation of light bulbs and neon strips in Kevin Adams’ stunning design, while sets and costumes by Christine Jones and Susan Hilferty deserve unusually redoubled applause.

In succession to Hair and Rent, this is the third great Broadway rock musical and the most cunningly conceived of them all. It does full justice to an important play while enhancing the language of musical theatre in its embrace of youth cultures separated by a century.

There’s nothing new about the pain of growing up, the cruelty of adults, “the bitch of living” as the boys have it, marching over their classroom chairs and shouting till they explode. With highly intelligent book and lyrics by Steven Sater and mesmerising music by Duncan Sheik, the show’s an absolute must-see and by far the best new musical in London for ages.

- Michael Coveney


Tagged in this Story