Review – Spring Awakening, Royal and Derngate’s Youth Theatre’s Musical Company, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 1st March 2013

Spring AwakeningFrank Wedekind’s original play of Spring Awakening was written in 1891 but didn’t see light of day on the British stage until after the 1968 Theatres Act lifted the requirement for plays to be subject to the Lord Chamberlain’s red pen before performance. Are you wondering why it was banned? It was probably to do with its representations of homosexuality, masturbation, sado-masochism, abortion and suicide. Before 1968, you’d have been lucky to get just one of those past the censor – but together that bunch of bad boys would have created one big heart attack for the Examiner of Plays.

I’ve not read the play, but I was very keen to see Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s musical adaptation that was so successful on Broadway, but that fared so poorly in the UK, despite winning four Olivier awards. I remember feeling a severe disappointment that it had closed before I got the chance to see it. Therefore I was delighted to find out that the local Youth Theatre group attached to the Royal and Derngate had chosen Spring Awakening as their latest production.

I will be honest with you, gentle reader. Mrs Chrisparkle and I have seen some shocking amateur productions. Mrs C still bears emotional scars and even has horror flashbacks over a couple of them. I had faith that the local group would be good – the Community Actors Group here did an excellent Our Country’s Good a couple of years ago – and I thought that Spring Awakening itself would probably be entertaining enough to get us through the evening unscathed even if the production wasn’t that great.

Well I was half right. It’s a really moving, daring but highly enjoyable musical with some excellent songs and a gripping story. But what I hadn’t predicted was that the young performers in the company would be so able, so convincing, so assured and so watchable. The combination of the keen and talented young company and a bold, high quality musical turned it into a superb evening of theatre.

It was held in the Underground, which is a very useful space for a small production like this. It was staged in traverse, with two rows of seats on either side of a long narrow stage. Stumps and branches came up from the floor and overhung the ceiling, and the stage area itself had a very ornate branch pattern on the floor so that the feeling of forest permeated the space. At one end sat the four musicians under the leadership of Simon Egerton, who all played the score with clarity and emotion, and were the perfect musical support to the performers on stage.

Spring Awakening againThe story concerns a group of young people in this 19th century German village where morals are strict and there’s little scope for self-expression. And they’re all feeling those teenage urges. Moritz feels anxious and guilty about his fantasy dreams but Melchior, the charismatic boy in the class (there’s always one) explains them for him in an essay, which Moritz devours. Georg is powerlessly enamoured with his music teacher’s bust and Hanschen gets to grips with his longing (literally) whilst hiding from his mother. The girls are even more innocent. Wendla, who is frustrated by not knowing about the birds and the bees, and whose mother refuses to explain it to her, meets up with Melchior and a relationship (of sorts) is formed. There’s a scene where Wendla asks Melchior to beat her because she knows one of her friends gets the same kind of abuse from her father, and you feel that Wendla just wants to experience some physical stimulus to prove to herself she’s alive. Reluctantly Melchior complies, and it’s a fascinating and shocking insight into how a sado-masochistic fetish can develop. Eventually Melchior and Wendla have sex without her really knowing what is happening to her. Is it rape? You decide. From there it’s a downward spiral, with Moritz failing school (undeservingly, through the devious manipulation of the headteacher) and subsequently committing suicide; and, with Melchior sent to a correctional school, Wendla shows signs of pregnancy, resulting in her mother taking her to a back street abortionist, from which Wendla dies as a consequence. It’s an extremely moving story but strangely not depressing. The characters have such a life force about them that you feel that mere death won’t hold them back, and indeed the spirits of both Moritz and Wendla return to join in the final choruses. Why on earth did this show did not last longer in London?

Considering the young age of the cast, there are some performances of extraordinary depth and maturity. Brett Mason as Melchior has a superb stage presence and an amazing ability to act while singing. Whenever his character began a song, Brett Mason projected a brightness and a conviction that many professional actors would envy. His self-discovery of a predilection for sadism was horrific but fantastically well done. His reaction when he discovers Wendla’s grave and realises what has happened in his absence actually made both Mrs C and I shed a tear – now that’s impressive. He sang really strongly throughout the whole show, but he carried off the disarmingly funny song “Totally f***ed” with particular aplomb – and superb support from the rest of the cast.

Wendla was played by Nicole Read who was completely convincing as this child who is almost a woman, desperate to know more of life and to break free of the stifling family environment. She was heart-breaking in the way she blindly stumbled into the path of the abortionist, ignorant of the dangers and the repercussions of the act. She was scarily vulnerable in the sado-masochism scene, and to cap it all, is an excellent singer too. It was Wendla’s friend Martha who told all the other girls about how her father took her belt to her, and Bethany Coulson played this scene superbly movingly, suspecting there might be something wrong about her father’s behaviour but believing she was equally guilty; being scared by her own honesty and fearing for her own future; it was another tear-jerking moment.

Spring Awakening one more timeMatthew Parsons as Moritz also gave a superb performance, being picked on in that opening Latin lesson scene (why were Latin lessons always so terrifying? It brought back horrible memories for me), desperate to learn more about sex from Melchior, sweating under the pressure of school work, having a bit of a thing for Melchior’s mum (a very mature and enjoyable performance by Katy Sturgess), refusing the chance of an escape with Ilse despite his better judgment, and with a final resignation feeling he had no option but to take his own life. He delivered all these scenes with immaculate honesty and sensitivity. When he actually put the revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger, a man next to me let out a horrified “Oh my God” – that’s how much the audience believed in and cared about what was happening.

Stephen Bennett as Hanschen brought out all the humour of the role during his masturbation scene – producing lots of embarrassed giggling from the audience, not surprisingly – and his scenes with Ernst, his inamorato, very convincingly played by Michael Ryan, were extraordinarily mature and touching. There’s a scene where all the young characters are in church, trying desperately hard to restrain themselves from giving in to their physical desires – visually a very effective moment. Hanschen sits behind Ernst and Stephen Bennett’s agony at simply not being able to touch Ernst on the back was incredibly well done. The eventual seduction scene was very tender and when he finally takes Ernst’s hand and leads him offstage it felt like quite a triumph.

I also really enjoyed the performance of Hannah Saxton, both as the bitch of a Latin teacher Frau Sonnenstich, and as the free spirit Ilse, nourished by her Bohemian lifestyle. When Ilse cannot convince Moritz to spend time with her, her sadness and annoyance is very believable. She’s also a very expressive singer, and she sang “Blue Wind” with great purity and delicacy. And I should also mention Louis Jordan’s Georg very amusingly goggling at Fräulein Grossebustenhalter’s assets. But it’s an extremely fine ensemble performance and everyone contributed superbly well to the whole evening’s entertainment.

The performers conveyed a level of dramatic tension and conviction acting that was better than some professional productions we have seen. This excellent young cast is a credit both to the Royal and Derngate and their town. It was only on for three nights – I hope you were able to see it. I’d really like to see this production again!