It’s difficult imagining Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening not having a life after its extended Hammersmith run.
This is a show that is sure to become a cult hit with young, and youngish, audiences and a West End transfer has to be a reasonable bet. For those of us a little older, this vibrant musical teeming with youthful talent, is a sharp reminder of how it feels to struggle through the challenges of adolescence.
The show’s backbone and strength is Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play, the integrity of which it by and large maintains, despite the unusual treatment. It’s a work of genius, chronicling the tribulations of a group of youths on the tipping point of maturity within a strictly conformist society.
To most teenagers, it is adults who have an almost expressionistic grip on their freedom, so, although late nineteenth Germany may seem a world apart, it’s a generally recognisable situation. Sater’s version of the play (heavily cut and re-ordered) is given straight, that is in period costume, but with the characters breaking off into modern songs at key emotional moments.
The musical distinguishes itself by handing itself over to its young cast and layering a rock score onto the harshly repressive world of Wedekind’s drama. It’s a highly effective device when the songs succeed in expressing a seething undercurrent of youthful feelings and desires.
The up-tempo rock numbers, expressing genuine youthful energy, work best but there are too many soft ballads, where the soppiness factor takes over and, apart from the upbeat “Totally Fucked”, which fuses humour with a weary acceptance of inevitability, the songs are not particularly memorable.
The young cast, most making their professional debuts, are terrific. Iwan Rheon, with the sad face of a clown and an Eraserhead hair-cut, is especially appealing as the sticky-dream-racked and ultimately tragic Moritz Stiefel. He sings well too.
Doe-eyed Aneurin Barnard as the academically-brilliant rebel Melchior is called upon to carry a fair amount of the weight of the show and acquits himself well. Charlotte Wakefield, a dead ringer for Harry Potter’s Hermione, is sweetly affecting. All the adults thin wisps of stern and unsympathetic parenthood and authority are played skilfully by Sian Thomas and Richard Cordery.
The weakness of the piece is a tendency for the songs to pull away from the drama in the second half, making it resemble more and more a superior Summer youth production, but this is a skilfully executed piece, with several scenes of real theatrical flair, that will resonate with people of all ages.
Christine Jones’ set and Susan Hilferty’s costumes look great and, in the boys, the show has some of the most watchable hairstyles you’ll ever see on a stage.