Spring Awakening follows three teenagers navigating their life under the repressive eye of 19th-century Germany as they explore sexuality, liberty and, most importantly, where babies come from. This production blends a perfect mix and comedy and tragedy with riveting drama and excellent vocal performances to create a vibrant and raucous evening at the theatre. From start to finish, it was emotionally enthralling, and the mood still lingered after I left the theatre.
Sitting down, I was greeted with a huge neon Church-like window hanging over the stage; the looming presence of religion and morality was instantly portrayed in just a few seconds. In the first few moments, the lead female character, Wendla (Hannah Andrusier), stepped out and began to sing about her mother as the cast dressed themselves around her. Wendla’s vocal performance was quite extraordinary, and she was instantly a standout performance. She was joined by Moritz and Melchior (Joe Winter and Henry Waddon), two schoolboy friends who were very different, but bound by the commonality of growing up. Waddon led the play with strength and conviction, and carried the right amount of emotional weight to bring gravity to the heavier scenes whilst still being funny and light in the comedic moments. Winter was suitably clueless and likeable for Moritz’s character, and I felt his fear as he was terrorised by his teacher in one scene. The three lead characters all gave strong performances in a brilliant cast.
Also worth mentioning were the two teacher characters, played by Gavin Fleming and Ella Tournes; their few short scenes together were by far my favourite, and the funniest overall. The pair had a natural humour that worked so well as they peered and sneered, almost vulture-like, from the raised level of the stage. These actors both doubled as other characters including a suggestive piano-teacher and grim priest. Other standout performances came from Ruby Nicholson as Martha, whose song was, in my opinion, the most tragic; Nicholson convincingly portrayed a distressed young woman suffering at the hands of her parents, and this desperation was conveyed disturbingly well on stage. Additionally, Maddy Page as Ilse, a young girl representing sexual expression and deviancy, again gave a compelling vocal performance.
Together, the cast was extremely strong; though the microphones weren’t always very loud in the solo performances, they clearly worked well as a group and created an exhilarating ensemble piece. I will admit that diction wasn’t the word of the night and I did sometimes struggle to understand what the actors were singing over the music, but the emotion carried me through the performance well enough. (Speaking of music, the live band were also at the top of their game, and seeing them join the audience in various scenes added a fun touch of anachronism to the performance.)
One point of interest was the excellent chemistry between Melchior and Wendla. As one can guess, this show is not for young children, and the two actors were surprisingly convincing in their (very) intimate moments, to the point where I almost felt uncomfortable as I felt I was seeing something I shouldn’t have been. Overall, this was hugely important to a musical that brands itself as being “a musical about sex” that is “fuelled by sexuality, morality and rebellion”, and it was supremely satisfying to see this element work so well on stage.
The show was set in the 19th century but was scored to a modern alt-rock soundtrack, and the songs were fun – a particular standout began with the line, “There’s a moment you know you’re f***ed”. They were perhaps not so memorable individually, though given that the music has won a Tony Award for Best Score, that may just be my subjective opinion. One point of criticism is that the production could have leaned into the Victorian setting a little further through costume and set design, as it would have perhaps made the concept of sexual repression clearer; I occasionally forgot the context and why these characters were so shocked by things like pre-marital sex. Another slight confusion was the large amount of advertising I have seen regarding the LGBTQ+ aspect of the play. The moment was cute, but it was just that: a moment. Don’t go in expecting any sort of LGBTQ+ story arc, as it was altogether unnecessary to the main plot which was already interesting on its own. However, these are small gripes about an overall outstanding production.
All in all, Spring Awakening truly changed my concept of what student theatre can be, and I only hope to have the pleasure of seeing more performances like this one in the future. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get to the Oxford Playhouse to catch this fresh and exciting piece of theatre before it’s gone. I’m certainly glad I did.