Before seeing Shotgun’s long-awaited Spring Awakening, I was warned to brace myself. With scenes of a daring psychological and sexual nature, I initially feared how an amateur student theatre company could handle such topics with sensitivity or avoid cliché or damaging romanticising. However, this production was the furthest thing from amateur. With a cast of astounding talent, a flawless soft-rock musical score, and a few light-hearted subplots peppering humour between heart-wrenching trauma, Spring Awakening had me Feeling. Directed by Jacob Hutchings and assisted by Sacha Mulley, this creative team have produced one of the most stunning and thought-provoking pieces of theatre I’ve seen at university.
The plot is an emotionally tumultuous one, exploring the difficulties of understanding adolescence and sexuality in a world of repression and shame. While set in 1891, the play is strikingly relevant, brought into reality by the excellent cast. The schoolboys had us laughing but intrigued from the beginning, proving their “laddish” culture in songs like ‘The Bitch of Living’, while the girls’ friendship offered a more endearing, yet harrowing innocence in touching numbers like ‘The Dark I Know Well.’ Crucially, the play’s power is held in the cast’s impeccable performance of youthful naivety – best demonstrated by Ilse (Mimi Templar Gay) – and the devastating but relatable notion of making mistakes before one understands why they are mistakes.
The central love between Melchior (Macauley Keeper) and Wendla (Lizzie Connick) was performed with beautiful intensity, holding the audience – and each other – in the palm of their hands. Demonstrating an emotional volatility and rare sincerity, both actors were superb in depicting the turbulent journey of adolescent discovery. Macauley Keeper’s performance especially was astounding, proving an impressive emotional depth and variety from songs like ‘Totally Fucked’ to ‘Those You’ve Known.’ Charming and intellectually intriguing from the start, Keeper’s rebellious yet fragile persona made him a standout.
Moritz, played by Chad St Louis, was likewise nothing other than phenomenal. For what must be an incredibly challenging role, Louis’ demonstrated a sincerity that had his most intense scenes breaking something inside me. His duet with Ilse in ‘Don’t’ Do Sadness/Blue Wind’, was one of the most memorable of the whole production, with Templar-Gay’s beautiful voice and playful innocence contrasting Louis’ depression in a heart-wrenching moment.
I also enjoyed Hanschen and Ernst’s narrative, performed by Tom Dean and Alex O’Loughlin. *Spoiler* While the sceptic in me is always disheartened that a queer story-line is but the comical, cliché subplot, and I believe it could have done with a little more expansion, the presence of a gay plot at all in an 1891 setting is a victory, and was performed with true charm and intimate affection. I’m rooting for them.
Additionally, I must commend Kathryn Pridgeon and Charlie Howard, who multirole as the adults of the musical. As teachers, the two brought much-needed light relief to the production, exuding sexual tension through their teasing glances, suspenseful silences, and bizarrely alluring German accents. Pridgeon especially demonstrated immense talent in bringing distinct quirks to every character, making each mother/friend/headmistresses a powerful yet emotional person in her own right. As the adult forces of the plot, these two proved it wasn’t just adolescents who were damaged by stifling repression of sexual desire.
Throughout, it was the musical score and impressive harmonies that cohesively united this cast. Extending from humorous, rebellious extremes, to tear-jerking, intimate numbers, songs such as ‘Touch Me’ exemplified the astounding perfection of the cast’s harmonies. Credit must be due to vocal coach, Saffron Wainwright, for perfecting this art that elevated the performance to West-End standards. The dance choreography accompanying it was equally admirable, with graceful gestures that exuded intimacy. Together, this made the musical’s sensual plot visible, audible, felt by the audience.
The musical wouldn’t have succeeded without the band; thanks to musical director Ryan Mulgrew, they were impeccably co-ordinated and beautifully orchestrated. In particular, Amy King and Ciarra Munnery on the viola and violin respectively, particularly against the deep bass tones of Olly Fawcett, resonated throughout the soft-rock score, giving a stunning and intense atmosphere which made the musical a masterpiece.
Finally, the literature nerd in me also adored the stage design of the Book Tree, which perfectly reflected the characters coming into bloom sexually and intellectually. With book pages lining the ground, transforming from a straight structure into a chaotic scattering, even the flooring reflected the characters’ experimental transgression away from stifled order.
Overall, this musical production was a perfectly executed concoction of bittersweet longing, sensual desire, and devastating innocence. Cast, creatives, and band demonstrated an impressive versatility in producing a show of the beautiful Ups and harrowing Lows of adolescence and sexual awakening, handling tragic issues with sensitivity and excellence. By far, Spring Awakening, is one of the most impressive, powerful, and must-see productions ever produced by the students of this University.
All photo credits to photographer Bee Taylor, and designs by TKG Design.
Spring Awakening continues at Kay House with performances this evening (10th May) and a matinee and evening performance available tomorrow (11th May).