Tuesday, 3 February 2009

SPRING AWAKENING




2/2/09, Lyric Hammersmith.

2hrs 20 mins. Final preview of a musical based on the notorious Franz Wedekind play, which comes floating on clouds of hype having reputedly taken Broadway by storm, but has been entirely recast for the UK

For the first half of the first half it felt like a superior school play. Almost all the cast were fresh out of drama school and looked about 16, the age they were playing. They were earnest, frightfully well-spoken (they’re meant to be – these are middle class Viennese) and rather callow. The musical interludes felt forced. It stayed on the right side of embarrassing, but only just. I kept wanting to see how an authentically American cast would have tackled it. They might have come across less as “painfully self-conscious” and more as “engagingly na├»ve”.

The exceptions to the youthful casting were Sian Thomas (last seen going over the top in Tennessee Williams at the Arcola) and Richard Cordery (last seen as the Duke of York and sundry other elderly aristocrats in the RSC Histories), who played all the adult parts – effectively highlighting the divide between adolescence and the adult world in the process. He was rather good as a kind of all-purpose male authority figure, except when called upon to sing and dance briefly, when he seemed to be having far too much fun and slipped completely out of character. She had difficulty distinguishing her collection of parents and teachers and middle-aged matrons sufficiently, and hammed one or two of them up excessively.

I’ve never seen the Wedekind original. A, who has (her son played the hero’s suicidal best friend in a student production last year), says this version is pretty faithful. From the outset it’s clear it’s about sex, specifically adolescent sex – frustration, ignorance, confusion and the rest. There’s a scene in which one of the boys masturbates in the bathroom, while dad thumps on the door. But the show really throws its first curve ball with a song about parental sexual abuse, at which point it’s clear this might be more interesting (and more serious) than you first think. Shortly afterwards there’s a scene in which our heroine urges out hero to beat her with a switch: he does, with just a bit too much enthusiasm.

The first half closes with them making love rather touchingly and in part two it all goes downhill. She falls pregnant, he’s sent to a reform school, his best friend commits suicide, and she dies at the hands of an abortionist. You can see why they banned it in 1899. If nothing else, it’s a splendid advertisement for decent sex education.

The songs were inoffensive but unmemorable (except for one, of which I can only remember the refrain, “I’m fucked!”). They were accompanied by a four-piece band – drums, guitar, bass, piano – at the back of the playing area, in keeping with the artfully contrived artlessness of the staging. Some of the audience were in bleachers on either side of the stage, with the cast interspersed among them (including four chorus members in modern dress). Behind the bleachers were climbing ladders reminiscent of a school gym. The boys were literally buttoned up in grey suits and knockerbockers; the girls were in smocks. They all wore head mics, but still seized hand mics for some (but not all) of the songs, which I thought unnecessary and inexplicably irritating. The songs themselves made no concession to period but jarred less than I feared.

At the back was a brick wall, hung with portraits of bewhiskered patriarchs and other visual bric-a-brac. There was what looked like a headless rag doll in a glass case, and a picture of two adolescent girls. From time to time individual items on the wall were spotlit: I couldn’t see the relevance. At one point, en route to the reformatory, our hero climbs a ladder to sit in a chair hanging from the wall; during the next song he travels along the wall to the far side of the stage, ending up in the reform school uniform.

The clever lighting included electric blue and red and orange fairy lights, intermittently illuminated, and much of the time a cold bright light provided by institutional-looking lamps on the ceiling.

Choreography was by Bill T Jones, a renowned US practitioner, who uses hands and arms especially well.

A disappointment: the suicidal best friend, Moritz, with spectacular hair (all over the place to begin with, sticking straight up as he nears his doom), never made it quite clear if he was rebel or victim (or just plain stupid).

A decent effort. I’d say six out of ten. But I never felt involved or moved.
(The pictures are from the Broadway production.)





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