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The Theatreguide.London Review


Spring Awakening
Lyric Hammersmith, then Novello Theatre     Spring 2009

I loved this show the first time I saw it, 40 years ago, when it was called Hair. And I loved it the second time I saw it, 15 years ago, when it was called Rent. And I love it again.

No, of course this isn't a remake of those earlier musicals. Spring Awakening is a wholly new show (though based on an 1891 play) that was a big hit and Tony winner on Broadway last year, and now, after playing a short season at the Lyric Hammersmith, has moved to the West End.

But, like Hair and Rent, Spring Awakening has a fresh sound and fresh feel about it that generate a real theatrical excitement and speak directly to a young audience. And even though I am, by decades, not the audience to whom the show is directed, I can appreciate and celebrate its power.

Frank Wedekind's play was an attack on nineteenth-century sexual repression and hypocrisy, showing how adolescent sexual energy would burst out in spite of all the attempts to suppress it and how an older generation's attempts to deny it through regimentation, cold baths and enforced sexual ignorance would only damage and pervert it.

Teenage boys go through throes of guilt and agony over masturbation and wet dreams, teenage girls kept totally ignorant of the facts of life wander into sexual activity with no idea of what they're doing.

The one boy who knows the facts is treated as a pervert for educating others, a girl who becomes pregnant is taken to a butchering abortionist by parents thinking only of their own shame.

It is, in fact, not a particularly good play, Wedekind's satirical anger outstripping his dramaturgy. But it proves to be an excellent platform for this musical adaptation by Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music).

By openly embracing anachronism and giving the nineteenth-century teenage characters the outlet of rock music to express themselves, Sater and Sheik create a theatrical expression of the sexual forces bubbling within the kids.

Song after song bursts with adolescent energy or romanticism, and if - as the creators admit is quite likely - you don't catch all the words, it is the passion behind them that is important and that is communicated fully.

For this production director Michael Mayer has assembled a new British cast, almost all of the youngsters making their professional debuts.

Aneurin Barnard and Charlotte Wakefield stand out as the central couple, with Iwan Rheon touching as a doomed friend. Veterans Sian Thomas and Richard Cordery play all the adult roles, creating instant characterisations of appropriate coldness or warmth.

I can only hope that a young audience will find their way to this show, and have the same thrill of discovering a musical speaking directly to them that previous generations found with Hair and Rent.

And I encourage those who are too old for this show to go anyway, to enjoy it for its own merits and for the excitement it generates among those around you.


Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Spring Awakening - Novello Theatre 2009