Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Touching tale of coming of age

Protecting the lovers: The encircling chorus in the Act I climax

Spring Awakening – The Musical

Royal & Derngate Youth Theatre, Northampton 


SPRING Awakening is a show it is difficult, in a sense, to get wrong. With the tensions of adolescence, sexual and intellectual, played out in all their glory, Frank Wedekind's way-ahead-of-its-time daring play (Frühlings Erwachen, 1890-1) has immediacy, directness and daring. Provided you can stomach its blatancy, it hits the solar plexus. 

But it is also infernally tricky to pull off: not only to explore lucidly those fledgling  philosophical musings, on a par with Musil's Young Torless; but (here) to import the informality of another idiom, the Musical, sung and chanted, prevent it becoming too banal and set it alongside the tortured internal battles of these young, vulnerable souls poised curiously between joy and agony, hope and despair, life and death.  

Does Northampton's talented youth pull it off? You bet they do. I went with knees a-tremble, having missed the Musical at its (pretty deafening) London premiere and fearing an irrelevant ear-battering. That was freshly honed professionals. These were rank amateurs. And they were superb. This show – more like a Mystery Play or Church Parable - was sensationally good. 

The (real) adults first. The two people above all on whom these gamins relied for their triumph were director Natalie Diddams, head of Royal and Derngate's Youth Theatre, who got totally and utterly under and inside the Wedekind's dark, almost Brothers Grimm-like morality tale and drew from her charges not dross, but gold.  

Diddams' introductory note gives an idea of her perception of this acutely philosophical, terse and tense play, and exemplifies perfectly the approach she and her assistant director Rebecca Kilby-Smith took in piecing together what is, for all its unevennesses, a masterpiece of the stage; a play that belongs up there with Ibsen:  

‘Its portrayal of teenage love is not patronizing but beautifully, painfully honest, and will hopefully make an adult audience reconsider its attitudes towards teenage sexuality…The play is ultimately hopeful, embodying that desire for change that always has been – and always should be – the experience of being young. Not just honest, then, but creatively subversive.'  

That ‘always should be' is significant, and is indeed Wedekind's point.   

 The second enabling adult was Musical Director Simon Egerton, who refused to be fazed by the sometimes in-your-face flamboyance of the genre, but responding to Duncan Sheik's actually quite engaging and restrained ‘alternative pop' numbers, delivered a freshly pared-down score (multifaceted keyboard, soft guitars and violin) that had sensitivity and ingenuity written all over it. Egerton's keyboard playing, invention and subtle varying of timbres was beyond praise.  

Free spirit Ilse (Hannah Sexton) lures the doomed Moritz Stiefel (Matthew Parsons) with her charms

And the young ones, feisty members of the Royal and Derngate's Youth Musical Theatre, duly blossomed. There are distinct lead roles (Wendla, Melchior, Moritz), plus problematic parents – all played, and sung, by young people - but Natalie Diddams contrived to share the dramatic honours widely around the ensemble. It works wonderfully, both textually and musically (the spoken enunciation was, almost without exception, exemplary); and from her Spring Awakening ensemble she generates the most vivid teamwork: the excitement, the sympathy, the mutual support engendered in and out of the classroom shines out.  

This play is a bit like scapegoatism in reverse: when one suffers, all suffer. (Conversely, Frau Gabor makes an allusion to the scapegoat principle in direct relation to the Education system in Act III scene iii of the play). Instead of hope and optimism, this collective dream of an 1890s generation would instead yield two horrors: the Great War, in which these families and these school age youngsters' immediate successors would all have been embroiled; and Hitlerism.

Brett Mason is magisterial as Melchior Gabor, whose passion brings disgrace but who is in fact the cleverest, or, tensions surmounted, on the way to being the wisest adult of all. Mason's Angsts are writ large; yet this performance is so distinguished because he reins Melchior in: thoughtful intensity is etched upon his fretful, ruddy face. ‘Nothing is OK (he is told) unless it's written in the Bible. Still, I know to trust my own mind'. Personal conscience: the key to it all. Pure subversion, in The Kaiser's 1890s.

 Melchior wants the best but has still not the knowledge how to deliver it. And even his own doting mother, the most sympathetic adult (Katy Sturgess, superlative in the letter-writing scene) cannot really advise or help. 

These children, for so they are, are not seventeen-plus, but all aged 14 or 15. The test for the youngest, the pretty Wendla Bergman (Nicole Read), contemplating her innocence at the start, who finds herself  pregnant (by Melchior) when just turning 14 and wholly unconversant with the implications of sex, is to make the girl believably that young.  

I praised Gabrielle Dempsey, who played Wendla in the splendid Icarus Theatre Collective's currently touring production (with Romeo and Juliet, appropriately:, for just that. But Northampton's Nicole Read, emerging in her disturbingly sexy child's lace nightwear, innocent yet instinctive and intuitive, nervous teenage awakening personified, had all those qualities, and more.  

The beautiful purity of it all – though Natalie's production (and perhaps the Musical treatment) avoided making Melchior the young teenage rapist Icarus chose to do (in Wedekind the jury is out) – was celebrated, par excellence, by her brilliant conceit of having the entire chorus gather round the embracing duo, a kind of vulnerable Hansel and Gretel, like watching young animals or birds: hence, amid falling wintry leaves (their coupling coincides with the nativity Christingle service, surely another symbol), it became a moment of mystery and wonderment, a profoundly expressive moment of transfigured innocence. 

That was just one of this production's wonderful touches. Take another: the magnificent letter scene – shades of Tatyana's in Tchaikovsky and Pushkin - where Melchior's mother (Katy Sturgess) warns Moritz, for his own good, not to take crazy risks with his sanity and future. Sturgess was just superb in this: her slow self-dictation was a classic of theatre.  

Love springing: Wendla (Nicole Read) and Melchior (Brett Mason), embark on a fateful coupling

Or take Danny Brown's memorable appearances as steely Headmaster Knochenbruch: strict, domineering yet somehow almost in danger of giving the adults some humanity: he looks swayable. A person, not a bureaucrat. We never see, in the Musical the ultra-Expressionistic (and frankly silly) scene where a mass staff meeting erupts with disgusted condemnation. But the three lady members of staff we did see – Daisy Bowles's secretarial Frau Knuppeldick not least, and all endowed with ghastly German knickerbocker-names funnily adapted from Wedekind's origina - were splendidly ghoulish or (Katy Sturgess's near-groping piano teacher) tentatively lusty; and Charlotte Walter's Lutheran Pastor iced the cake with a deliciously ghastly moralising sermon. 

Matthew Parsons' bumbling, sensitive, studious Moritz struck a remarkable chord. Already a touch gawky, not bright enough to be nerdy, yet always enquiring like a belated five or nine year old, Moritz careers from one confusion to another. The scene where Melchior gives him a breakneck sex lesson, pored-over illustrations and all, is one treat; but Parsons makes us see very early on the character failings – or strengths – that will lead Moritz to turn his gun on himself. A slightly gabbly, volatile, immature mother (Megan Swan) doubtless took a toll. Moritz's references to ghoulish dreams and severed heads are – well – Freudian: premonitory, disturbing.  

Wedekind depicts Moritz as neurotic; Parsons does it like a natural. Moritz is a Melchior in reverse: from youthful optimist he is descending into the depths. Melchior has already reached the doldrums, but will re-arise to make his peace with an unkind world: one thing this Musical version, with its (apparent) axing of the mysterious Masked Man (in German, ‘Der vermummte Herr'), who intervenes to save Melchior from embracing death along with his friend. Melchior picks up the glove cast before him: poised on the edge of annihilation, he survives. 

Then there's Stephen Bennett's gentle, beautifully observed Hanschen, faded photograph in one hand, rampant prick in the other, fretfully wanking (a friend berated me for calling it ‘self-abuse' once in a review: ‘That's like ‘polluting': you typify exactly what Wedekind is attacking'). By the time we find little Hans's propensity, or at least his emotional learning curve, is currently gay (a touching, not too tentative kiss with the equally inexperienced Ernst - Michael Ryan), his outlook has changed: no guilt, only radiant Romanticism and tenderness; not self-abuse, but joyous self-belief).  

The way a trio of girls, spirit-like, hover over Hans and Ernst during this woodland idyll is quite beautiful, mirroring the exquisite Act I (literal) climax with Melchior and Wendla. It's a touching performance from Bennett, whose input into to the group scenes also is tremendous. Described as an ‘actor, dancer, musical theatre performer and singer' (tenor), and now studying for a BTEC Extended Diploma in Musical Theatre at Northampton, a dramatic career hopefully in mind, Bennett has his own revealing listing at (rather a good site, incidentally). 

But the entire line-up of boys, without exception, comes up trumps: they execute each move, many of them awkward and demanding in the small oblong dancefloor of the Derngate's Underground space, to perfection: the discipline of these young rebels is (paradoxically) superb: indeed they're the kind of clever, hardworking, repressedly impudent, not quite lippy class one would long to teach.

 What both boys and girls brought to this production was a thrilling feeling of a Greek chorus. They manoeuvred like one, interacting and intertwining, as if watching helplessly the self-mutilation of an Oedipus or anguish of an Antigone. A brief break-out (led by Hanschen, and perhaps choreographed by Simone Coxall) enacted on chairs and multi-levels early on is terrific.

Headmaster Knochenbruch (Danny Brown) and his fawning secretary-deputy Fraülein Knuppeldick (Daisy Bowles)

Melchior has been despatched to the Reformatory by his vile advocate father (Ryan McLean, mirroring the stiffness of the character – ‘the increasing sensuality of these liberal minded times', which sounds just like our own age; or even worse, from the playscript, ‘Whoever can write what Melchior wrote must be contaminated in his innermost core. The marrow is affected. It shows that rare spiritual corruption we lawyers call “moral insanity”) You can hear Nazism just round the corner. Indeed the passing scene where Melchior is beaten up at the Reformatory is surprisingly effective: nasty little pieces of work, these dodgy kids. Hitlerjugend in the making. 

The girls are, if it's possible, even better: all a-twitter with the joys of Spring, blossoming, opening their ears and minds to new discovery. Acquiring a new shrewdness, on the threshold of sophistication as well as physical, though not yet emotional, maturity. These young teenagers were all so believable. Wendla's friend Martha Bessel (Bethany Coulson), victim of violent beating that anticipates Wendla's submissive, not quite kinky desire to have Melchior beat her (a prelude to the virtual ‘rape'), was outstanding. Gathered round Wendla's sad little grave, they are all heart-rending; just as Melchior is when he realises he will not, now, ‘build a better world for our child'. 

To call this production moving would be a ridiculous understatement. And when it came to the Musical aspect, nursed on by Egerton and his gifted team, the musicians shone: above all his wonderfully sensitive violinist, with overtones of folk timbres, Romanian-born Horia Vacarescu.  Clear star, Vacarescu studied at  Bucharest's George Enescu Music College (Liceul de Muzica George Enescu Bucuresti on Victory Square) and later in London, with the legendary Levon Chilingirian, founder of the Chilingirian Quartet).  

Both young guitarists, Dan Johnson and Mason Tomlin, played distinctively (I was next to them), though Egerton could perhaps have given them slightly more distinctive roles: they were a little keyboard-dominated. One other small weakness in the score – some might see it conversely as a strength – is the constant, albeit, gentle, instrumental doubling of the vocal lines. These (I assume) fifth, lower and upper sixth formers have the musical assurance to cope without that. In a full-scale rock musical (which is what this is, in other hands) one might expect just that. But here, it seemed – well, overcautious, and just fractionally intrusive.  

Far more effective, for example, was Moritz's violent outburst over double-stopped violin (in near falsetto as he first toys with the pistol), or the instrument's independent descant line to accompany Ilse: ideally conceived and beautifully enacted. Moritz's soft song or reprise as a (supposedly headless) corpse hovering in the graveyard, was another moment when the music got it spot on, though visually his transformation was fudged.  

Librettist/Lyricist Steven Sater's famous two-finger-wielding number ‘Totally F*ucked' (‘There's a moment you know…you're fucked…. Man, you're fucked if you just freeze up'), a rather warming trio/quartet for Melchior, Georg, Hans and spoken Otto, is gloriously daring, and brilliantly enunciated, not just by them but by the chorus when all the others join in with their derisive ‘blah blahs's (more like ‘hear, hear's). Such solidarity. All, it would seem, are f**ked. 

The arrivals of the midwife and abortionist are suitably grim and ghastly. Melissa McCullough's (Frau Bergman's) ‘Is it safe?' is loaded enough, pathetic enough, to make you burst out crying. But it isn't just that it isn't: this play, or musical, poses the real question about life itself. Is life safe?  

The character Ilse is rather important to this play. She is a free spirit: how she got there, one may surmise: premature sex, flightiness, childhood abuse, a depressive tendency overcome, indifference, amorality, an experience of life the others haven't had. The choice – one need not make one – is endless. Hannah Saxton needed to sing out a little more: but her own outburst to the prudish Moritz, ‘You know when you finally wake up I'll be lying on some trash heap', and Moritz's lovely, guilty ‘O God, all I had to say is Yes', is wonderful. 

Wendla Bergmann (Nicole Read) is poised to awaken

Ilse's costuming – bright reds, in stark contrast to the rest – really underlined her social and emotional ‘otherness'. The boys' and girls' in-school and out of school attire – inspiredly selected from the Royal and Derngate's treasure trove of period costumes – was a visual joy. This looked nothing like weedy period drama. The subtlest of understated colours, with a plethora of culotted grey flannel-like material and preening or nonchalant caps for the boys, and an array of sensitive turn-of-the century dresses and pinnies for the girls, looked quite wonderful. And – this doesn't always follow - they wore them wonderfully, too. 

The mainly woodland set (by Lucy Read) is beautifully understated and sinuously evocative. Tendrils of leafless tree, like an incipient wisteria, ivied their way across the ceiling; hence the miraculous fall of brown-turned leaves at the end of Part I. Scattered stumps suggest perhaps two things: growing potential; and stunted hope; their similarity to severed necks (Moritz's obsession – and destiny) only added to the creepiness. This stylish Shakespearian spinney supplies a haunt of freedom, where youth can be youth and adults cannot penetrate, where magic can happen and experimentation is not condemned.  

Particularly effective, conversely, was the long mirror in which Wendla gazes at her young body, poised to burst into womanhood. The mirror remains onstage, exterior as well as interior, gazed on, dodged or leered into by chorus and principals. It's the thing that reflects youth to itself; but it also watches an unkind world with a critical eye: it whispers the truth to you and me. 

The cast's singing is a treat: one early song from the boys, at a lively allegro, stood out; the girls' singing was superlative: bang in tune, and with some lovely voices to boot. It's true, the words of the lyrics – which are not bad – didn't always project clearly (the book, and its adaptation into short vignettes of, say, the headmaster scenes, felt ingenious). But on musical grounds alone, these buoyant youngsters could have made a perfect chamber ensemble, or Lutheran Domchor. As Melchior notes to the dead Moritz, ‘You spend your whole life running from the Church and you end up in a graveyard'. Quite so. One of life's frequent ironies. 

The Melchior-Wendla-Moritz ensemble (duet, then trio) near the end (‘I'll never let them go….') and its successor with cloying, predictable rhymes (‘heaven…forgiven') are both a bit corny musically, a dramatic droop (a bit like those American ‘family unit' film endings); though the offbeat, muttered responses of Parsons' Moritz (‘Not gone') are rather effective.  

But at the close, the fusion of girls and boys' choruses, led by Coulson's Martha and Saxton's Ilse, and culminating in a challenging final block (the last of many beautifully managed groupings), was climactic. And how heartening to be able to marvel, in these gifted and precious performances, at a musical where the music does not, as it so easily might, milk the words for thin, sickly emotion.

Roderic Dunnett

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