Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s musical about teenagers is now 15 years old. In the crowded field of coming-of-age stories it’s still startlingly original. This strong revival by director Rupert Goold embraces the novelty of adapting Frank Wedekind’s fin-de-siècle play and harnesses the energy of a superb young cast.
Let’s start with that talent. The production boasts Laurie Kynaston in the lead role of Melchior. It’s easy to see why he won the Evening Standard Emerging Talent award, and his performance shows an uncanny ability to suggest a whole range of complex emotions. Similar skills are present with another award winner, Amara Okereke, who ensures the role of Wendla holds equal focus. Stuart Thompson’s moving performance as the troubled Moritz – whose suicide needs to be highlighted in a show sure to draw a young audience – completes a trio of superb leads.
There are snatches of other stories in Spring Awakening. Goold makes sure these don’t confuse. The whole cast get a chance to shine (Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea and Zhen Xi Yong are both memorable) but are best at working together. The ensemble sounds fantastic – its work as a chorus is particularly strong. With the musical direction of Jo Cichonska, Sheik’s score sounds better, more mature, than ever.
Goold’s secret for the show’s success is the choreography from Lynne Page. Every movement shows the frustrations the teenagers are experiencing. There’s a fantastic energy, as you might expect, but it is the suggestion of containment that creates incredible tension.
In less uncertain times I’d put money on this production transferring – it is top notch. Goold is clearly keen for a transfer. Miriam Buether’s staging is effective but screams for a bigger venue (to many seats have a poor view) – let’s hope the show gets one.
More than 60 years after the play’s premiere, and three years since he first directed it at the National Theatre, Bijan Sheibani’s new revival continues to show that Shelagh Delaney’s superb play is as fresh as you could wish.
Sheibani adds a sophisticated flourish to the production with an on-stage three-piece band and music from Benjamin Kwasi Burrell. Popular songs provide introductions to characters and ease the play’s episodic structure. Although sometimes elegiac, the music adds an energy to the show that, despite my admiration for the text, is admittedly needed.
As well as putting some soul into Salford, Sheibani’s close knowledge of the piece has led to sharp performances that do justice to Delaney’s wonderful characters. Jodie Prenger is great as the wicked mother Helen: razer sharp and brutally honest, she’s funny and smart even if you wouldn’t want her as a family member. Gemma Dobson plays her daughter Jo with bold intelligence. Refusing to make the character too sympathetic, she’s a brittle teenager who is frequently unappealing. The bickering matches between the two women are a highlight but the humour is controlled; A Taste of Honey isn’t a comedy no matter how funny both women are. Moments of hope, fear and pain are all regularly glimpsed and then hidden with frightening speed.
Performances from the men in both women’s lives are just as good. Durone Stokes makes a dashing love interest for Jo, while Tom Varey plays Helen’s new husband just the right side of villain. Stuart Thompson may have the trickiest role as Geof – Delaney’s precocity gets the better of her characterisation here, it’s amazing to think she wrote the play at 19 – but his performance is still one to be proud of.
That the play is concerned with
Northern working-class lives still feels unusual. Treating its central female
characters as intelligent and complicated remains depressingly rare. While
rooted in its time and place, Sheibani’s production shows a play that’s still
for today; a piece he makes it easy to relate to, while never compromising on
Delaney’s distinctive voice.