Archive: Review of Spring Awakening, Novello Theatre, 26 May 2009

As it is – unbelievably – two years to the day since I saw Spring Awakening for the second and last time, I am marking the occasion by dredging out of the archives this review, written long before I started my blog. I hope that fans of the show who were, like me, sad to see it close prematurely in the West End will enjoy this blast from the past.

Spring Awakening is like a refreshing spring breeze blowing through the West End, bringing youth and vitality to the Novello Theatre.

This re-imagining of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 tale of adolescent love, lust and anguish simply bursts with energy and emotion.  With a dazzling rock and pop score, an excellent cast and a sparkling script, this musical offers everything that a theatregoer could wish for.

The cast of frighteningly talented newcomers bring youthful exuberance to Wedekind’s troubled characters, masterfully blending comedy and tragedy in their balanced, mature performances.  Although the whole cast are brilliant, the two leads stand out in particular.  As the rebellious Melchior, Aneurin Barnard commands the stage with his intense, emotionally charged performance, making it hard to draw one’s eyes from him, whilst Charlotte Wakefield brings innocence and tenderness to the role of Wendla.

Duncan Sheik’s score is the perfect soundtrack for teenage angst, resonating as much with the youth of today as with the original characters.  A particular favourite of mine is the wonderfully irreverent ‘Totally F***ed’, an angry teen anthem which I can imagine teenagers worldwide delighting in.  As well as fuelled rock tunes, the musical is filled with hauntingly beautiful ballads such as ‘Whispering’ that perfectly convey the tragedy of Wedekind’s play.

The staging of Spring Awakening is refreshingly unusual for musical theatre.  The late nineteenth century set clashes beautifully with the modern neon lighting and deliberately anachronistic microphones, and the collection of bare light bulbs hanging over the stage provide a magical, starry backdrop for some of the show’s most touching scenes.  Bill T Jones’s choreography opts not for big, toe-tapping dance sequences but instead much energetic, apparently spontaneous leaping around.  This complements the show’s vitality and provides a release for the tormented, repressed characters, much like the unrestrained rock music which reveals their inner thoughts.

If I had to make any criticism, there are perhaps not enough truly memorable songs, and particularly in the second half – excepting the riotous ‘Totally F***ed’ – the music becomes much more subdued.  This, however, is completely forgivable, and the change of tone in the second act is appropriate to the darker subject matter.

Moreover, Spring Awakening is not a ‘big’ musical with huge numbers belted out by immense casts, and nor should it be.  This show is not about visual spectacle but about true human emotion and experience, something that the small cast express exquisitely.  By resisting the temptation to bring in crowd drawing stars, the production team have produced a showcase of fresh new talent and made this show about the story and characters rather than about the names of the actors.

This is not for anyone who shies away from a little nudity or is put off by expletives, but for those who can handle the strong language and difficult themes I would readily recommend it.  Although this show has appeal for both teenagers and adults, it particularly captures the pain and emotional tumult of youth; the ‘Bitch of Living’, as the characters would put it.


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