Abortion, child abuse, suicide, rape and group masturbation? So, we’re not at Salad Days now, Aunt Edna.
Critics of musicals dismiss them as being trivial, escapist. Spring Awakening, however, which ran for over two years on Broadway but sadly did not find an audience in the West End, is neither. Unafraid to sing it like it is, or rather was (it’s based on a nineteenth century play) Arts Educational’s current third year students did it full justice. It’s a perfect ensemble piece for a group of young performers, stretching many of them who double as adolescents and parents/teachers, and is sure to become a popular choice for many college companies.
I said was, yet Wedekind’s harsh, controversial exposé of the hypocritical sexual mores of late 19th century middle-class society in Germany, is sadly as relevant for many youngsters in today’s - albeit pc-riddled - world as when it was written. And, have the agonies of adolescence: the developing body, illicit love, same sex attraction, predatory adults and unbending parental attitudes, ever been more uncompromisingly depicted?
Played traverse-style on a set comprising nine white iron bedsteads which tragically became tomb stones in Act 2, this version of the show was beautifully directed by Russell Labey, the bleakness of the piece being relieved by its haunting and securely played score (Music Director - Caroline Humphris). Other vital contributions included David Greenall’s edgy, staccato choreography and dream-like, sometimes nightmarish, lighting by David Howe. But it was the energy and commitment of a uniformly gifted cast that really grabbed our attention and held it for two and half electrifying hours.
In a team show like this, it seems unfair to single out individual performances, but nonetheless, Dan Reilly’s tormented ‘Moritz’ and Samuel J Weir’s headstrong ‘Melchior’ were particularly moving in two of the key roles, whilst Amy Punter handled the complex part of the tragic ‘Wedla’ with compassion.
If I have a minor quibble, it was with the few inconsistencies in tone. The language of some of the lyrics (eg ‘Totally Fucked’) whilst emotionally accurate, does not always sit comfortably with the book which often sounds as if it has has been more-or-less lifted from the original play - no fault of the production. However, the costumes which, for the most part, effectively straddled both past and present, some reflecting some of the play’s early expressionist elements, didn’t always work for me. Wedla’s shortie nightie, for instance, a tad too ‘Tennessee Williams’?
Despite the over-riding bleakness of the show, however, when the company closed the evening singing
All shall know the wonder
I will sing the song of purple summer
we were able to leave the auditorium with a sense of peace, and the memory of a thoughtful production that will linger a long time.