"Sex, suicide and the rod."
by Jim Kelly for remotegoat on 06/04/09

'Spring Awakening' is an exceptionally vulgar, occasionally blazingly funny but for the most part oddly bland musical based on subjects about as unsuited for the medium as you can imagine (Except for those of the Rocky Horror Show). These include teenage pregnancy, teenage suicide, teenage sadomasochistic fetishism and teenage death by backstreet abortionist, besides incest, prostitution, care-home violence, predatory homosexuality, thwarted bukkake, some quite detailed parsing of a passage from Virgil's Aeneid, many lashings of onanistic self-abuse -- and a hit song entitled 'Totally F***ed'.

This is unusual for a West End musical (again, except for the Rocky Horror Show).

The explanation lies in Steven Sater's cunning adaptation of a 19th century German play of the same name. This original sounds like the worst kind of queasy Victorian melodrama, no matter its playwright's moan that audiences weren't 'able to see the humour'. Nevertheless by taking the 19th century setting, lurid plot and cardboard stereotype characters, 'Spring Awakening' manages to brush against topics and taboos that never usually travel further than the fringe - except for the Rocky Horror Show.

This may be a good thing for the West End in general, but to have it all in one place simultaneously makes fora fairly hefty assault on the senses. It's like watching MTV for a couple hours, not simply as after a while all the songs seem to clump into a single tinkly-dirge, but because they seem to be in competition with one another, out to be the 'edgiest' before a constituency of 14 year old girls.

Nominally the story is of teenage growing pains (the failure of adults to understand the next generation, the failure of teenagers to express their emotions and so on) but mainly it's about sex, or at least sexual frustration -- American Pie via Rilke. The boys and girls talk to each other about boys and girls then try to talk to each other about sex, invariably fail and so sing about it instead (the songs usually being their private thoughts and fantasies). Occasionally, they sing about other things too, like suicide and making your parents feel guilty, and how hard it is to get into the sixth form; but for the most part, they stick to copulation - again, with the afore mentioned exception.

Inevitably, in spite of the dictatorial segregation of girls and boys, one couple do enjoy a coming together only for it all to go terribly wrong as their vicious, inhumane parents and teachers have failed to explain to them the consequences. Though, by this point, since one of them has written a treatise on coitus, I'm not sure the blame can be entirely levelled at the parents.

'Spring Awakening' has won some pretty strong support from critics and it's not hard to see why. The story is risque, Richard Cordery and Sian Thomas playing all the adult parts are excellent, the young cast are energetic [Jos Slovick in one of the supporting roles probably the pick] and though the cheese-rock songs are without exception forgettable, they're mercifully short.

There's not as much dancing as there might be and the choreography is a bit wacky. But while that's easily forgivable, the script is less so. It's a hodgepodge -- best when camp, painful when the lead couple are mooning about (him a sort of muscly hobbit; her conventional girl-next-door pretty) and rotten whenever it ventures beyond the bourgeoisie day to day. The moment when one of the girls is tricked into a visit to the abortionist's isn't simply uncomfortable but repulsively glib, dropped in to give the plot a quick forward shuffle.

As bad is the hero's descent into a borstal-like reform school whose working class inhabitants are depicted not only as perverts and thugs but fundamentally weak and inept - the hero easily fighting off four of them to make his escape. These parts may have come straight from the original play but they should have been corrected, or at least approached ironically. Apart from anything else they damage the integrity of a plot which relies on masking the slimness of its characters' sufferings.

And in the end this is the only trick the musical really pulls off, somehow making onstage masturbation, suicide and sex middle-brow. Still it's quite some trick.

The Rocky Horror Show isn't on in London at the moment, and in the meantime this will do.

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