It took a moment for me to key into what was happening at the start. With much running round of excitable children, it’s not until the second half that you appreciate the references of all the characters that appear in the opening montage. This frenetic action gets the ball rolling for the first, quieter scene with Wendla (Ana Luderowski) and her mother (Rachel Dobell). A credit to Amy Jeskins’ costumes, Luderowski, like most of those playing children, certainly looks the part. After a little time to settle into the scene and find her feet with Wendla’s enthusiastic dialogue, the two women create the believable chemistry of a girl wanting to know everything and an embarrassed mother reluctant to tell.
Following this, we are introduced to Melchior (David Palmstrom) and Mortiz (Joe Sowerbutts). The energy between these two was joyful to watch. Melchior’s unfounded confidence about women is subtly belied to comic effect, as is the bashful naivety of his classroom friend. Palmstrom shines in these earlier scenes and Sowerbutts is superb. After sneaking in to the staffroom to discover his grades, his pride and excitement are enthusiastically displayed as he marches on the spot. Although many of his movements carry Moritz’s childish imprecision, throughout the play he demonstrates a strong range of focus and emotion in some well-developed monologues. Palmstrom is also a strong performer, though seems more suited to the less emotionally-fraught scenes.
In the way that the film Love Actually creates a series of stories that, one after another, demonstrate different kinds of love, this play presents a series of stories that highlight the taboo issues young teenagers face: sex, sexuality and mortality. In some ways it would be nice to see these stories intertwine a little more, but that is to no fault of this production. In fact, John Fricker’s direction keeps things moving enough to include all three sides of the Jack Studio’s auditorium with each scene seamlessly overlapping the next.
The work by the all-female design team is neat and incredibly effective. Gina Rose Lee gives us white paint on black flooring to create an inverse flagstone effect with three moveable chalkboard panels that not only serve to illustrate the architecture of the various locations but which also provide a backdrop for some rather clever chalk-letter-like animated projections. It is refreshing to see such a strong design element which goes beyond what is merely required of the story to support and enhance it. The occasional cinematic soundscapes with reversed echoing bells, clock ticks and hints of earlier dialogue complement the visuals. The endings of both halves are beautifully structured as letters and symbols float about more frantically and centre on the actor as the action reaches its climax.
As with The History Boys and Chariots of Fire, Spring Awakening is about the trials, successes and failures of the students and therefore sidelines the teachers as caricatures. As such, the characterisation of Andrew Wickes as Rector Sonnenstich is appropriately pitched as an authoritarian untroubled by compassion or logic. It is also nice to appreciate the skills of those doubling up, with Wickes also playing a mournful and very natural Herr Gabor alongside an elegant performance by Sophie Doherty as Frau Gabor. Evelyn Campbell is impressive as she morphs between the poor, abused child Martha and the bureaucratic Professor Affenschmalz. JP Lord is also at home with the more grotesque characterisations. As Otto, he seems like an irritating schoolboy from Little Britain before doing his best to mask his youth under the bumbling guise of Professor Zungenschlag. As amusing as Beadle Habebald (Doherty) and Zungenschlag were, and a credit to the performers, it’s still difficult to not be distracted by the casting, though I fully appreciate the reasons for it.
Oliver Malam and Ellie Morris are very confident and capable supporting performers. Given the nature of the sexual content, Calum Mould tackles his solo scene of self-exploration with the right mix of confidence, naivety and comic frustration. The beautifully angelic Luderowski is aptly unsettling when Wendla explores her need for punishment from Melchior, though the brief stage fighting element seemed somewhat under-rehearsed.
Though a couple of minor areas need polish, the production is generally energised and slick, picking up on the zeitgeist of education and revealing a clear authorial message on the dangers of how little we share with our children. Even with a slight drop in pace in the second half, the poetic graphics and a surprisingly unclichéd Mumford and Sons soundtrack was perfect and gave such punch to the ending that the audience couldn’t help but be uplifted.