07/04/18 - Spring Awakening at Hope Mill Theatre

There are some pieces of art – a book, a song, a film – that come to you at exactly the right time.  They speak directly to you and it feels, to quote Alan Bennett, “as if a hand has come out and taken yours”.  Even as you change and grow away from the person you were when you had that initial reaction, these works stay with you.  They shape who you become, your development intrinsically linked to having had that experience just when you did.  Looking for Alaska by John Green was a big one for me.  As was the early music of Taylor Swift.  And Spring Awakening.

While this musical has a very contemporary feel with its pop-rock score, it’s in fact based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play of the same name.  It’s hardly a surprise that both the play and the musical have proved controversial for their unflinching presentation of topics such as [spoiler alert!] child abuse, masturbation, homosexuality, abortion and suicide.  Unfortunately, these are issues which are still as prevalent and vital to discuss as they were when the play was penned or when the musical was conceived by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater in 1999.  As each year passes, we increase our awareness of issues surrounding mental health and sexuality, and yet as a society we are still letting huge swathes of young people down.  Spring Awakening is part of an outcry against this crisis.  It raises incredibly valid questions over how we expect teenagers to cope with the increasing pressures of their impending adulthood if they are not suitably prepared for it or supported by their parents and teachers. 

My first experience of the show was back in 2009.  I made the long journey from my little town on the Wirral all the way down to the big city of London to see a West End show I knew very little about with my friend Luke.  It was the first time I’d been to London without my parents and it felt unbelievably sophisticated.  This was before Spotify, before high quality bootlegs on YouTube, so I didn’t really know what to expect from the show.  I had a vague idea of the plot and a couple of the songs, and that was about it.  The production blew me away and, unsurprisingly, the story of a group of teenagers fighting their parents’ repression in an attempt to make sense of the world around them spoke right to my soul as a confused sixteen-year-old.  And nearly ten years later, Spring Awakening has captured my heart all over again.

I knew Spring Awakening was in safe hands as soon as it was announced.  Aria Entertainment have cultivated a well-earned reputation for putting together some incredible shows, particularly in conjunction with Hope Mill Theatre (Hair, Pippin and Little Women to name but a few).  My excitement was only escalated on hearing that Luke Sheppard would be directing the project, having seen the triumph he made of Lin Manuel Miranda’s debut In The Heights at the Kings Cross Theatre, London in January 2017.  It’s fair to say that I had high expectations as I walked into the theatre, given the track record of those involved.

As with other Hope Mill productions, seating is unreserved and the audience are admitted to the theatre space in batches, but there isn’t a single bad seat in the house due to the intimate nature of the room.  Gabriella Slade's set is relatively minimal – upstage gives a Victorian school room vibe with blackboards across the walls, an authoritative desk and upright piano.  Framed pictures  a set of mounted butterflies reminiscent of all the striking publicity material.  Of all the productions I’ve seen at Hope Mill, I felt as though there was a particularly impressive level of consistency between the promotion of the production and the show itself.

With a plot which revolves around a group of teenagers attempting to navigate the complicated act of growing up whilst being stifled by the adults around them, the result is a spectacularly tragic chain of events.  Sensitive Moritz (Jabez Sykes) struggles with the pressures of school and is “plagued” by his own burgeoning sexuality until it all becomes too much for him to bear, while na├»ve Wendla (Nikita Johal) and intellectual rebel Melchior (Darragh Cowley) embark on a relationship doomed by Wendla’s mother’s refusal to adequately explain the facts of life to her daughter.  All the adult roles in the production are played by Gillian Kirkpatrick and Neil Stewart, placing the emphasis on the individuality of the young characters and adding to that teenage sense that adults are a homogeneous group with little concern for the younger generations.

© Scott Rylander

The young cast are a powerhouse of emotion throughout, working as a tight-knit ensemble to beautifully portray even the weightiest of moments.  I have to give a mention to Seyi Omooba (Martha) and Teleri Hughes (Ilse) for their incredibly moving performance of The Dark I Know Well, a particularly harrowing number in which their characters reveal to the audience the extent of the abuse they suffer at the hands of their fathers.  That being said, the show isn’t all doom and gloom.  There are moments of incredible tenderness between the characters as well as a few laughs which help keep the mood elevated.  My Junk in particular is a wonderfully fun number which perfectly captures the all-consuming feeling of an unrequited crush, while Totally Fucked - this production's strongest number - is an explosion of pent up anger and anarchy.  This anthem for frustrated youth takes me right back to being a confused teenager every time I hear it.

Tom Jackson Greaves' expressive choreography plays a huge part in the emotional impact of this production.  Those familiar with the show on Broadway or in the West End may find the distinct personalities of the characters' demeanours lost in favour of a more cohesive ensemble performance.  While this works for the more emotional numbers, such as Touch Me and The Guilty Ones, others lose a little of their impulsivity - The Bitch of Living could have been a bit punchier for me, but that may well have been a result of seeing the show during previews.

© Scott Rylander

 The choice to use regional accents also sets this production apart, consciously making the characters and their struggles fit into the local landscape.  It may be occasionally jarring to hear certain lyrics sung without the original American twang (the phrase “just kiss some ass, man” doesn’t translate quite as well in a broad Manc drawl) but it succeeds far more than fails.  I couldn't help thinking that there may well have been sixteen-year-olds in the audience who, on seeing themselves so clearly represented onstage, would get even more from the show than I did at that age.

Spring Awakening is running at Hope Mill Theatre until 3rd May, and tickets are available here.  This is absolutely not to be missed!

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