Written by Frank Wedekind in Victorian Germany, Spring Awakening is the story of Wendla and Melchior, young teenagers on an emotional and sexual journey in a society oppressed by religion and prudish adults. It was banned due to its portrayal of homosexuality, rape, abortion, and other controversial subjects – but in 2007 it was developed into a ‘rock musical’ and became a sensation on the West End and Broadway.
Having seen the West End production in the spring of 2009, I wondered if Sell A Door could recapture the spectacle of Spring Awakening. Simply put: yes, they could. On a small stage with an even smaller budget, they rediscovered both the text and ambitious musical score and filled the space with a tangible energy. Director Pete Gallagher risked a lot by taking hold of the musical version of Wedekind’s story, but it paid off in a truly remarkable production strengthened by an exceptional cast.
Jonathan Eio gave an intensely emotional performance as Melchior, balancing nonchalant humour with truly heart wrenching feeling. There is always the threat of this character being played too much as ‘Jack the Lad’, but Eio managed to recognise Melchior’s sincerity and portray a young man searching for something in a very claustrophobic society. His relationship with the other characters was believable as well as devastating, and Eio was able to draw the audience in to his personal battle in the song ‘Those You’ve Known’ alongside Victoria Serra and Billy Cullum.
Serra played Wendla at the age she was written, which can often be overlooked in older plays, including most commonly Romeo and Juliet. Her childhood innocence came through as she teetered on the brink of womanhood, making the final scenes all the more poignant and the resounding frustration towards her mother all the more real for the audience. Some interpreted Serra’s rather erratic depiction onstage as a sign of an uncertain actress; however I felt it highlighted the sense of confusing within Wendla, struggling between what she has been always taught and what she feels for herself, a key element to Wedekind’s script.
I cannot neglect to mention Robert Eyles, who carried the adult male roles throughout the play. Though mainly for comic relief, the characters of the teachers and fathers became more than just fillers as Eyles committed to each one so completely, it really was like we were watching numerous actors. I am in awe of how he managed to go from the utterly distraught father of Moritz to a dismissive teacher in under three minutes, with such precision that it did not dampen either character.
The score in Spring Awakening is not an easy one by anyone’s standards with unusual timing and multiple harmonies, and yet there were incredibly strong vocals by all, led by musical director Michael Bradley; most noticeably, Billy Cullum thrived as Moritz. Though occasionally overacting in the first half, he sang with a passion and vitality that gave me goose bumps. Similarly, Jill Armour’s Ilse was a tragically sweet and beautiful contrast to the chaotic world of the other characters, brought out in ‘Blue Wind’.
My theatre-going companion was greatly impressed by the simplicity but effectiveness of the set – two stairs led to a large tree and window frames at the back of the stage, and just in front of the onstage band were six swings, a nice nod to the unstable world of childhood. But most remarkable was the way in which the action revolved around six ‘brick’ walls of differing heights. For a company who cannot spare the expenses of the original West End production, they managed to create intimate locations for the story
After seeing the show two years ago, I was disheartened to hear that it was going to America and may never grace London’s stages again. When I heard that Sell A Door had resurrected and revitalised the show with their own personalities and theatre ingenuity to create an absolutely phenomenal take on this infamous play, I jumped at the chance to see it. Even though it is now appealing to a generation of expressive, vocal and passionate young people, Spring Awakening is as important today on the subject of open communication as it was a century ago. A word of warning however – taking your grandparents to see this show is strongly ill-advised…
Want to read an alternative review of Spring Awakening? See what our other reviewer thought by reading the review here.