Review – Spring Awakening – First Act Drama Tuition at Hope Street Theatre

Frank Wedekind’s late 19th century drama Spring Awakening shocked both audiences and censors in its day for its frank and honest exploration of teenage sexuality and repressive culture. Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Tony and Olivier Award winning musical adaptation pulls no punches in playing it out for maximum impact, with its alternative rock inspired score and lyrics that bring a contemporary punch to expressing the emotions involved.

Warrington-based First Act Drama Tuition have chosen this as their first ever fully staged musical performance, and have brought it to the stage of Liverpool’s Hope Street Theatre this week.

It is a very brave choice of work. It’s a piece that requires a large cast, most of whom need to be able to believably play teenage schoolchildren, but the subject matter is such that any company actually using performers of the correct age group surely give themselves a lot to think about in working through the material in more ways than just its performance. From the basics of understanding sex and sexuality, through teenage pregnancy, abortion and suicide to domestic and institutional child abuse, every scene is pregnant with raw emotion.

It is testament to the skill of both the tuition staff at First Act and to the twelve young actors involved that the entire show is delivered with absolute conviction and holds the audience exactly where they should be emotionally throughout.

This is a huge and very impressive ensemble effort but there are several key thematic lines that both require and receive some very strong performances from the actors. India Poulaud is Wendla, the girl who implores her mother to tell her the facts of life and who, after receiving no help at all in the matter, goes on to get herself into the deepest possible water. Her opening song ‘Mama Who Bore Me’ is reprised with her classmates, expressing their longing for better understanding of their own bodies. Olivia Hebden as Martha also stands out among the cast for her portrayal of a daughter who is abused by her father.

Jack Wright has a heavy responsibility in playing Melchior, the boy who many of his peers look up to for advice, and whose radical ideas don’t sit well with his elders. In fact everyone does look up to Wright, being by far and away the tallest performer onstage, and he matches his physical stature with a towering performance. He gives real weight to his delivery without ever eclipsing the underlying fragility of the character.

Isaac Hartill plays the troubled Moritz, who thinks the frequent ‘sticky’ dreams he is having are a sign of madness. Despite Melchior’s efforts to help him, Moritz cannot escape the shame of failing a crucial exam, and Hartill valiantly succeeds in plumbing the depths of emotion as he spirals towards self-destruction.

Wright and Poulaud go on to share a lot of very intense stage time together in Melchior and Wendla’s budding romance, which results in the inevitable and ultimately fatal disgrace for Wendla.

Meanwhile, Hanschen has his own sexual awakening as he finds he has fallen for his classmate Ernst. Toby Holmes deals with the introduction of this thread with a perfect balance of sensitivity and humour in his solo scenes as Hanschen. Jake Burke matches this delicacy of performance as Ernst, who is at first terrified but ultimately admits that the he also loves Hanschen. There is no small irony in this being about the only relationship that seems to be taking a positive path, doomed as it must have been to secrecy in the period.

The remaining cast all put in equally strong vocal and dramatic performances in the more minor roles, but a special mention must go to Harvey Farrell as Georg – the kid who carries a torch for one of his teachers. Farrell plays second keyboard at frequent intervals throughout the play and also adds some impressive vocals. He is joined musically by Poulaud, who plays guitar, the two of them providing the additional score elements in support of Musical Director Ashley Walsh, who plays keyboard and cello.

There is a rawness about the entire ensemble’s performances that gives real edge to the often angry, angst-ridden music and lyrics, balanced with a sensitivity that belies the youth of the individual players. The choreography is edgy too, and makes smart use of the intimate performance space.

First Act says that the inclusion of musical theatre in their curriculum is, among other things, aimed at developing their students as ‘triple threat’ performers and, if this first musical staged by them under the pin-sharp direction of Kit Philips is any indicator, they are succeeding big-time. Talent spotters for casting agencies need to keep a close eye on this company.

Star rating: 4½ stars

Review by Nigel Smith