Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Spring Awakening

Book and lyrics Steven Sater, music Duncan Sheik, based on the play by Frank Wedekind
Hope Mill Theatre
31 March 2018 to 03 May 2018

Specialists in musicals rarely, or never, seen this side of the Atlantic, Hope Mill now offer a relatively well-known show that had a respectable, rave-received, run on Broadway in 2006 and scooped eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Book and Score. It was hailed as a landmark show.

But despite achieving cult status before it even opened – and winning an Olivier for Best Musical – it has never taken off over here. The West End production in 2009 received rave reviews, some of the most favourable ever, yet it closed after just 10 weeks. Can Hope Mill break the British jinx…..?

Well, other, far lesser, Hope Mill productions have moved on for limited runs on the London fringe. With this I think they should be aiming higher.

It is unquestionably, far and away, their best production to date in every way – content-wise and production-wise Hope Mill moves into a different league with this. They are now quite clearly Manchester's second most important producing house, after the Royal Exchange (HOME, it seems, having virtually given up on producing its own shows).

Spring Awakening the musical, is an ambitious, occasionally inspired, rock/pop show, often with some quite melancholy songs and soaring melodies, quite closely based on the original – still pretty edgy – 1891 Wedekind play, a dark and sombre look at a group of German youngsters as they travel from childhood into adulthood.

It deals quite frankly with homosexuality, rape (though here it seems the sex is consensual), masturbation, sadomasochism, suicide and abortion. The play has often been censored and was banned in New York and London. So that’s a promising start. Like all musicals, there are plenty of parts you can pull apart if you are of a mind to, but such is the conviction of this evening I’m certainly not doing so.

Wendla (Nikita Johal) is beginning to question her sexuality, but her mother won’t discuss it and won’t even tell her where babies come from. She feels the stirrings of womanhood but doesn’t know how to deal with it.

Moritz (Jabez Sykes), an anxious misfit, is also dealing with his sexuality, very much feeling the physical urges of adulthood, while Melchior (Darragh Cowley) is the brilliant student who knows about sex and is willing to share his knowledge with his male friends. He’s also the heartthrob of his village, and innocent, sweet Wendla is one of the girls attracted to him. Her naiveté and the stupidity of the adults – too embarrassed or prudish to discuss their offsprings’ urges – leads the children down an onrushing tide of hormones that cause confusion and desperation as they lose their innocence.

While the musical tends to simplify the original – for example, having all the adult roles played by just two actors tips it rather too firmly into standard generation-gap territory, and fitting in 20 songs reduces Wedekind’s text and loses some intricate psychology – it’s still a show with unusual depth for a musical.

It’s a young cast, with several professional debuts, including Cowley, who holds everything together with what looks like relaxed aplomb. Sykes is the other stand-out. No one, of course, looks the teenager they’re supposed to be, but it isn’t difficult to suspend disbelief. It’s a terrific ensemble, vibrant, pulsing with energy and raising the roof in the big Totally Fucked number.

Excellent atmospheric set of a dusty old schoolhouse that wraps around the audience (Gabriella Slade); astonishingly good, cutting-edge lighting (Nic Farman). Director Luke Sheppard really does know what he’s about, encouraging some excellent performances, pulling the whole thing together superbly and even finding the time for details in depth.

It's only let down, I’m afraid, by the quality of the sound. With a cast of 13 and band of eight and in this restricted space, it can’t be easy to ensure audiences hear every word of the lyrics, but unfortunately too many are inaudible, and it matters. I’m sure they know and will be fine tuning, so don’t let this put you off. It’s all round a pretty brilliant must-see.

Reviewer: Alan Hulme

Comments

Comment by David Cunningham

I benefitted from seeing a later performance by which time any technical issues had been resolved and the sound was clear as a bell. Until you mentioned it, I hadn’t appreciated the significance of Hope Mill’s role as a producing theatre. Yet it wasn’t that long ago there was a debate in nearby Halle St. Peters on the need for a mid-size venue in Manchester to fill the gap between Studio and mainstream venues and Hope Mill seems to have evolved into that role. It is a development that actors must really appreciate – four of the cast of Spring Awakening are making their professional debuts and seem determined to make the most of the opportunity.

Comment by Robert Beale

Saw it right at the end of the run and there were certainly no technical issues then - it was seriously impressive in every creative way. The piece is about loss of innocence, which has, I suppose, always got to be tragic, and the only thing that jars is the upbeat final number when we've seen so much go wrong in young lives (and deaths). Totally agree about the individual performances from Cowley, Sykes and Johal, too.