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Spring Awakening

The London premiere of the American hit musical works well, in part due to a cast of young British unknowns. logo
Jamie Blackley, Aneurin Barnard, and Iwan Rheon
in Spring Awakening
(© Helen Maybanks)
Given its cult status in the US, it was inevitable that Spring Awakening would eventually make the hop over to the UK, but instead of diving straight into the West End, the show has opened at the relatively intimate Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, a venue with a reputation for staging adventurous work. And instead of importing any of the existing American cast, original director Michael Mayer is working with a group of British unknowns, an approach that, together with the chosen venue, chimes with the show's convention-bucking ethos.

Spring Awakening sees contemporary songs grafted onto a fairly faithful staging of Frank Wedekind's once-banned 1891 play about the sexual blooming of a group of German school children. The songs are belted out rock-star style, with handheld microphones being pulled from pockets. It's a difficult balance, but despite Steven Sater's lyrics being somewhat pedestrian, the production mostly pulls it off, marrying the music of Duncan Sheik with a book that sticks closely to the play.

While the characters wear the high-buttoned jackets, breeches and superbly center-parted hair of a past time, their angst is very recognizable. Moritz (Iwan Rheon) is struggling to keep up with his school work and plagued with "sticky dreams.'" Wendla (Charlotte Wakefield) pleads with her mother to explain the facts of life to her but is fobbed off with talk of love. The teenagers are forced to turn to one another for instruction in this area and what follows is a pretty potent portrait of the maelstrom of adolescence.

One memorable number has one character self-pleasuring in time to the music after reading the scene of Desdemona's demise in Othello. Another unsettling moment sees Wendla, upset at discovering the abuse that her friend has suffered at the hands of her father, convincing the rebellious yet intelligent Melchior (Aneurin Barnard) to beat her with a switch so she can know what it's like to feel something real. When she and Melchoir next meet they are unable to contain their attraction to one another and end up making love.

After such a whirlwind first half, it's a little disappointing when the second half takes a turn towards melodrama and balladry (with the exception of "Totally F**ked"); this undermines but doesn't expunge the show's freshness. However, Mayer's staging is appealingly simple: there are no elaborate set changes and the band sits on stage at all times.

Some of the young cast's voices are a little raw but this doesn't detract from the impact of the show. Indeed, with a head of dark curls and a suitable intensity, Barnard's charismatic Melchior has something of a young Rufus Sewell about him. Rheon is endearing as the rumpled, striving Moritz and, as Wendla, Wakefield gives a good account of someone perched on the cusp of girlhood and womanhood. The remainder of the ensemble cast knit well together, and Richard Cordery and Sian Thomas, sharing all of the adult characters between them, both do commendable jobs with intentionally two-dimensional roles.

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