Review - Spring Awakening (Hope Mill Theatre)

At Manchester's tiny, atmospheric Hope Mill Theatre, director Luke Sheppard has captured lightning in a bottle with an electrifying new production of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's Spring Awakening. 

Nikita Johal, Darragh Cowley, and the cast of Spring Awakening
Photo credit - Scott Rylander
Based on German playwright Frank Wedekind's controversial 1891 play of the same name, Spring Awakening explores teenage sexuality, pregnancy, and suicide, all set within a stiflingly conservative community. 

Frustrated with the closed mindedness of his schoolteachers, precocious teenager Melchior Gabor teaches himself sex education with the help of some rather explicit literature, and then attempts to educate his nervy schoolfriend Moritz Stiefel who is being haunted by sexually explicit dreams. Along the way he finds himself reconnecting with his childhood friend Wendla Bergmann, who yearns to learn about her oncoming adulthood, and the pair reach out to one another. But without the support and guidance of their prudish elders, Melchior, Wendla and Moritz, and the rest of their young peers, are bound to make mistakes on their journey to adulthood, some of which result in disaster. 

It's easy to see why the original production of this groundbreaking rock musical, which opened on Broadway after an arduous 7 year workshopping period, was greeted with immense critical success,and quickly gathered a huge fanbase. Spring Awakening perfectly captures the frustration of young people in their awkward in-between years, and addreses the ever present issues surrounding consent, discusses domestic abuse, and looks at the failures of institutionalised education. It's a sad fact that these themes still dominate society over 100 years after the original source material was written, but it certainly makes for some very powerful watching. 

In addition to the hefty plot, Spring Awakening's intense pulsing music really is something special. From beginning to end, each of Sater and Sheik's song are filled with raw emotion, and perfectly encapsulate the whirlwind of youth which the plot revolves around. Especially when backed up by an energetic band which amps up the effect of the musical's rock score at every turn.

The cast of Spring Awakening
Photo credit - Scott Rylander
The Grade II listed Hope Mill provides a kitschy environment for Spring Awakening to inhabit, especially when combined with intricate yet understated set design. The image of a butterfly is displayed prominently throughout the venue, as a nod to the longed-for metaphorical Summer which the the teens in the musical dream of. The set is dressed with several atmospheric 19th century objects, which help to set the musical firmly in the past, and contrast nicely with Nic Farman's vibrant lighting design, which is undoubtedly a standout element of the production. Serene yet affronting shades of blue and neon white light which illuminates the stage ethereally. 

A venue as intimate as the Hope Mill Theatre calls for subtle yet punchy performances, especially in regards to Spring Awakening, which swings from earnest dialogue to thunderous rock songs without missing a beat. Luckily, an incredible ensemble of performers has been assembled, showcasing surely some of the most exciting upcoming talents in musical theatre. The cast attacks Tom Jackson Greaves' dynamic choreography with plenty of zeal, whilst imbuing their vocal performances with a power and clarity which rings from the theatre's rafters. From the hilarious and  mischievously titled song My Junk, which brings the students of the Boys' and Girls' schools together in  act 1, to the gorgeous and gut wrenching finale The Song of Purple Summer, each number stuns the senses. Sater's dreamlike lyrics evoke beautiful imagery, and add more layers to the already achingly powerful story. 

The cast of Spring Awakening
Photo credit - Scott Rylander
Leading the ensemble rabble, the musical's central trio is infallible, each making their role entirely their own. Darragh Cowley makes his professional debut as Melchior. He has plenty of charisma, which is much needed in order to pull of his character's cockiness, but he also adds a touching childlike aspect to Melchior, which reminds the audience of the themes of youth and innocence at the core of Spring Awakening. 

Cowley is the perfect foil to Jabez Sykes' squirrelly Moritz. Through forces smiles and involuntary squirms, Sykes paints a perfectly defined picture of the anxious youth, and it's absolutely evident that the action of Spring Awakening captures just the tail end of Moritz's downward spiral at the hands of chastising school teachers and pressuring parents. 

Meanwhile Nikita Johal is a breathtaking Wendla. From the moment she confronts her mother about how babies are conceived, clutching at her mother's skirt and dancing around every word before it leaves her mouth, Johal's Wenda is caught somewhere between childhood and adulthood, and is petrified yet insatiably curious as to where it might take her. It's a perfectly pitched performance, matched with incredibly powerful vocals, which shine in every song. 

There's so much to appreciate about this intricately designed and potently performed production. Voices soar, tears flow openly, and every single drop of angst is rung from the haunting script. From its winsome start to fraught finale, Spring Awakening at the Hope Mill Theatre will make audiences' hairs stand on end. In short, it's a production which absolutely must be experienced.