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‘Spring Awakening’ review

Theatre, Musicals Almeida Theatre , Islington Until Saturday January 29 2022
Recommended
5 out of 5 stars
Spring Awakening, Almeida Theatre, 2021
Photo by Marc Brenner

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Exquisite revival for Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s musical masterpiece, with a young cast who’ll bruise your heart

I was blown away by the Almeida’s revival of ‘Spring Awakening’ which made it all the way to press night against pretty steep odds. Indeed, at time of writing, it would appear to have gone further than that, which is not bad at all for a musical with a cast of 17 – plus band – at the height of a Covid surge that has shut numerous other London theatres.

To be upfront, I missed Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s musical the first time round. One of my first memories of moving to London is seeing posters for the original production everywhere, but unfortunately it had just closed – famously it struggled in the West End, despite ecstatic UK reviews and blockbuster success in the States. So really I’m more talking here about my first flush of love for ‘Spring Awakening’ than offering up any sort of useful contrast between productions.  But if the original was better than Rupert Goold’s newie then it must have been bloody incredible. 

I suspect this one will be West End-bound too, though I doubt anybody is expecting anything like the three years it managed on Broadway. That’s okay though: it’s helpful to manage expectations. Sure, the Americans went nuts for it, but the fact is that ‘Spring Awakening’ is a dark and sophisticated work that doesn’t really feel like a big populist smash. It’s a surprisingly faithful adaptation of an 1891 tragedy by the German playwright Frank Wedekind, with intense, graceful songs that are tuneful but never pandering, based on sonorous autumnal strings and inventive layers of vocals.

Ironically, for a show about schoolchildren, the thing that really struck me about ‘Spring Awakening’ was what an adult musical it is, tackling themes (sex, death) that musicals tend to blow up to operatic extremes, or couch euphemistically. Yes, it’s about teen angst, and has songs called things like ‘Totally Fucked’. But even that tune’s virtuoso handling of adolescent nihilism – with its entire verse with the lyrics ‘blah blah blah’ – feels raw and dangerous and honest in a way few musicals really are. 

Anyway, it is nineteenth-century Germany (albeit one merrily littered with anachronistic detail) and the story begins as we meet Amara Okereke’s Wendla, on Miriam Buether’s deceptively simple-looking stage, which initially seems to be just rows of plain black steps, but is full of crafty little tricks, and smart projections from Finn Ross. Wendla is a sweet, unworldly girl who plaintively asks her uptight mother (Catherine Cusack, who plays all the adult female roles) to explain where babies come from. Her ma reacts with horrified disgust, eventually spitting out a begrudgingly useless line of euphemism. The die is cast, and the story moves to an elite boys’ school presided over by various monstrous staff (played by Cusack and Mark Lockyer). Here, the story homes in on Laurie Kynaston’s hyperintelligent Melchior and Stuart Thompson’s gentle daydreamer Moritz. 

But their classmates are very much characters too; the whole show is a constant, explosive collision of bright kids and their close-minded, conservative parents. It’s a spectacular – and spectacularly unfair – generational clash that sees the monstrous adults (mostly wearing grotesque masks) brutally stifle their kids’ potential. The youngsters are left with a stark choice of squandering their potential by accepting the deadening status quo their parents believe in, or rebel against it and be crushed. 

Rising star Kynaston is great as the brilliant, impulsive Melchior, whose towering intellect and refusal to be cowed by the adults belies his innate sensitivity. Okereke is very good as Wendla: she’s not a drip, but there’s something heartbreaking about both the scale of her innocence and her unfulfilled desire to be divested of it – if her mother had answered the question she was asked at the start, things would have turned out very differently. But for me the star of the show was Thompson: with his dreamily vacant expressions and somewhat disarming north-east accent, he gives Moritz a real gentle loveableness, a kind, uncomplicated yin to Melchior’s dazzlingly bright yang. Again, it’s his innocence that hurts the most.

It is an exceptionally good ensemble, though, with lovely turns from Carly-Sophia Davies as Ilse – spat out by Bohemian society, returning to town a mess, hoping to recover her innocence – Bella Maclean as the darkly charismatic Martha, suffering from daily abuse by her dad, and Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea as the slick and amoral Hanschen, determined to get what he can out of his adolescence before cynically moving on.

And they’re a true ensemble, bound together by the remarkable songs and Lynne Page’s superb choreography, all sharp, startling, jagged gestures that allow a cast of 17 to perform together without stepping on each other. They’re often used in smart, imaginative ways, like on ‘All That Is Known’, where the male cast members are buried to their heads in Buether’s set, serenely chanting in Latin. But equally, it’s a pleasure when they all just go for it: on the seismic ‘Totally Fucked’ the whole young cast is in play, faces frozen in rictus, arms grasping out towards us.

Like I say, this musical floored me: I mean I guess it’s kind of emo, but it’s elevated to pure poetry, a howl of adolescent rage that sings like an angel, a teenage riot that floors you with its beauty. And this young cast is phenomenal. They’d be phenomenal in normal times, but there was something particularly emotional about their curtain call, just standing here and defying the odds, savouring the show that should be their big break. However much of the run they get to do (maybe all of it! you never know!) this is just too good to be over any time soon.

Details

Venue name: Almeida Theatre
Venue website: www.almeida.co.uk
Venue phone: 020 7359 4404
Address: Almeida St
Islington
London
N1 1TA
Transport: Rail/Tube: Highbury & Islington; Rail: Essex Road; Tube: Angel
Price: £10-£55. Runs 2hr 25min

Dates And Times

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