The greatest strength of the British Theatre Academy’s Spring Awakening the Musical is, patently, its young cast. Though ‘less’ may have been ‘more’ with regards to direction and choreography, the formidable 21-strong company bring an infectious and nostalgic energy to the Tony Award-winning musical’s anarchic production numbers.
Like the contentious 1891 play it’s based on, I’ve always found Sheik and Sater’s adaptation of Spring Awakening to be a fairly polarising watch in its own right. I’m not even particularly referring to the show’s content (rape, suicide and child abuse each receive plenty of stage time, for context) – but I’d argue its structure and book have ensured its status as a ‘cult’, rather than populist, favourite too. Everything’s just quite uncomfortably jittery for me: overlong dialogue sections are too often spliced into songs just at the moment you’re beginning to appreciate them, and the archaic manner that the 19th century teenagers interact with each other (or perhaps the language often just sounds like clunky literal translation from German) can be alienating. Sater’s lyrics aren’t particularly accessible either (do they present themselves as cleverer than they are in places? I do wonder…). The Marmitey nature of the material aside though, there’s plenty to enjoy about Dean Johnson’s 2018 production at the Stockwell Playhouse.
The greatest strength of the British Theatre Academy’s Spring Awakening the Musical is, patently, its young cast. Far closer to the actual age of Wedekind’s adolescent characters than the 2009 West End production’s, the formidable 21-strong company are unceasingly committed, peppy and powerful – bringing an infectious and (for those who remember the UK premiere 9 years ago) nostalgic energy to the Tony Award-winning musical’s anarchic production numbers.
‘Totally Fucked’ and ‘My Junk’, in particular, raise the roof. Both are moments when, because they probably still are feeling the angst and anger which underlie the songs, there’s a palpable benefit to the company being fresher-faced. They’re sung in a manner which feels genuinely authentic; you watch it and smile, just like you do when the Matilda kids sing When I Grow Up. Vocals, particularly from the girls, are equally assured and arresting. The cast seem to be in their absolute element during the ‘Mama Who Bore Me’ reprise and ‘Song of Purple Summer’ finale – and, accompanied by a first-class band, the musical direction really is something worth shouting about here.
Against the backdrop of an effective set from PJ McEvoy (definite American Horror Story: Asylum vibes, everything on stage – lockers, fences, cell-like beds, ‘safe boxes’ – aptly referencing the musical’s central theme of repression), James Knudsen’s Moritz really shines. There’s an awkward but fascinating energy to his performance which I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like before, and a classical quality to the way he performs ‘Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind’ and ‘Those You’ve Known’ (like monologues that wouldn’t be out of place in the Globe). Max Harwood (Melchior) and Charlotte Coe’s (Wendla) voices are satisfyingly assured too: both seem to understand the benefits of not giving the audience too much too soon, and that there’s times for belting but plenty of occasions when less can be more.
The director and choreographer, though, could perhaps learn from them. I’m by no means a prude but it seemed unnecessary to graphically embody the rape at the heart of ‘The Dark I Know Well’ – particularly in light of the cast being younger-than-the-material-was-originally-written-for. I’d argue that omission often tells more of a story. Equally, with the Wendla whipping section, Johnson makes it visceral than entirely necessary. I understand it’s meant to be an uncomfortable watch but it’s these moments which feel the least authentic. For a cast who, on the whole, already seem more comfortable singing rather than speaking, not enough nuance seems to have gone into rehearsing these reenactments of trauma for me to be able to find them ingenuous. Choreographically, less could have been ‘more’ too. Some numbers feel over-produced or traditionally ‘dancier’ than the music demands – like an advanced Stagecoach class might perform numbers in revues, somewhat devoid of the context of the rest of the action. I perhaps wanted more ‘movement’ and less ‘dance’ – parts were, if anything, a bit too tight and polished for it to feel congruous with the source material.
In sum, it’s a challenging musical to pull off – but the British Theatre Academy have a bold and brave crack at it here. Some production decisions don’t quite pay off, but the cast – at least – commit themselves fully to them. That palpable vivaciousness, from all 21 company members onstage, is infectious and inspiring – and I look forward to following them as they graduate from training and (very likely) start their West End careers.