Theatre is directly vulnerable as this happens, and this can give it an additional advantage. In London, with many theaters shutting down as Omicron calls the shots, it was easy to tell if Spring awakening would be put on hold. This is a multi-award winning rock musical comedy by Tony, first performed in 2006, with music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater, based on Frank Wedekind’s famous one-piece cause. expressionist of 1891. And when the first night rolled out, before some later performances were cut short, it was as thrilling as if it was the young actors’ last night on Earth – or on stage (of many actors are recent drama school graduates). It was an evening of such unprecedented dynamism that she let me bring superlatives to light, wondering who, if any, could possibly start to live up to this production.
Almeida art director Rupert Goold and designer Miriam Buether have created a dark world in which spring shows no sign of awakening and adults have the potential to nip young souls in the bud. The steps soar to the back of the stage and also serve as slates for luminous chalk scribbles that change with the scenes as they move from the classroom to the forest and cemetery. Unlike their oppressive surroundings, teens are ready to break free, aided and encouraged by Lynne Page’s breathtaking choreography – soaring imaginations that exploit the setting. In a magically unlikely moment, two boys, Hänschen (Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea) and Ernst (Zheng Xi Yong), slowly descend the stairs on their backs, hand in hand, head first: falling in love has never been so physically accurate.
But the musical begins with a lesson supervised by a sadistic Latin master (the admirable Mark Lockyer). Latin is compulsory but sex education is fatally refused, and Catherine Cusack plays the role of a sufficiently severe matriarch of disinformation. Adolescents and their music are fueled by an erotic energy that knows – and doesn’t know – where to go. Laurie Kynaston’s Melchior has compelling intensity in his high-neck, double-breasted outfit – a childish platform he surpassed with his childhood. He’s an intelligent boy whose intelligence puts him in danger: he composes a 10-page essay on the facts of life to help Moritz, his perplexed friend. Moritz’s emotions turn out to be precarious, and Stuart Thompson is heartbreaking in the role: it is fascinating to observe the nuanced fluctuation between the child he was and the adult he dared not become. Amara Okereke plays Wendla – with whom Melchior has her first doomed sex experience – with fundamental stillness and a wonderful voice. And the diversity of supporting actors shows that each adolescent journey is different but identical. Asha Banks, Taylor Bradshaw, Carly-Sophia Davies, Kit Esuruoso, Bella Maclean, Emily Ooi, Joe Pitts, Maia Tamrakar – it’s a register of brilliance, the classiest of classes.
But the production’s most striking achievement is that it contains the uncontrollable, especially during songs aimed at bringing down the house. The power is to seize the moment beyond the musical itself, using it to express distrust of the overwhelming effect on young people of the nearly two-year-old pandemic. Elegy and rebellion become interchangeable. Rage deepens the mix. And when the cast come together to sing Totally Fucked, it seems like an outlet for all the pain, frustration, and subjugation of the past two years. A Covid generation expressing itself in an unforgettable burst of energy.
Alan plater Peggy for you, first performed in 2000, tells the story of legendary theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay, who has portrayed playwrights from Alan Ayckbourn to David Hare to Plater himself – as well as dozens of other distinguished artists. It’s expertly crafted, mildly entertaining, and a perfect vehicle for Tamsin Greig’s comedic talent – no one could play Peggy better. She is seen for the first time lying on her sofa, staring myopic at manuscripts. Her voice is as languid as it is. It is syrup one instant, sour the next. Ramsay’s eccentricity is beautifully captured: She may appear distracted, but her focus on submissions that she rejects is devastating. She walks on tiptoe, her feet shod, a law for herself. She calls everyone ‘dear’ but is capable of reproaches such as: ‘You have set new standards for impertinence. I would have been interested in a more serious exploration of the evolution of Ramsay’s theatrical judgment, but Plater, perhaps understandable, never strays from entertainment to documentary.
Visitors to Peggy include Simon of Crouch End (nicely played by Josh Finan), an aspiring writer whose dazed abstinence does not cloud his intelligence; Henry (plausible Trevor Fox), an established but aggrieved writer from Newcastle; and the strangely slow and mannered Jos Vantyler as Philip – a successful playwright, accustomed to uncorking champagne, for whom literary success is like attending a wedding. This affectionate piece is deftly directed by Richard Wilson but is such a safe choice that it turns out to be dangerous, because while it passes the time in a fun enough way, it has nothing to say about our present moment.
I wonder if Peggy Ramsay has seen Habeas corpus (first premiered in 1973) and what she thought of it. Alan Bennett was not one of his Alans, although she did make a cameo appearance in his 2007 film. Strain out your ears, played by Vanessa Redgrave. Habeas corpus is another period piece, a hasty throwback to the 1970s: a farce without furniture (unless you count the coffin). They are two lustful doctors, a lascivious vicar and several underqualified women. Jasper Britton is a tired and courteous Dr Arthur Wicksteed, with a suspicious bedside manner. Catherine Russell is superbly bloused in Muriel, her sad and talkative tall wife. Debuting Thomas Josling is striking as their son Dennis, a restless hypochondriac with acne. Kirsty Besterman plays the “single” sister, Constance, like a feverish drop in search of improved breasts and a husband. Matthew Cottle is perfect as Canon Throbbing, the vicar with the chaste face, obscene intentions, and glowing blue eyes. And Kate Bernstein gets a high score as sexy Felicity: all the pout and doubt. Abdul Salis rallies around the unenviable role of Mr Shanks selling fake breasts, while Ria Jones struggles to keep the tedious story going as Mrs Swabb, who recounts the vacuuming (a role formerly played by Bennett himself).
You might think comedy shouldn’t have an expiration date, but it turns out that piece has expired. Patrick Marber is directing and has apparently been won over by its mix of darkness and light (the play alludes as much to death as it does to sex). But Bennett’s melancholy needs to be backed up by more than flat gags on huge breasts.
Ratings (out of five)
Spring awakening ??
Peggy for you ??
Habeas corpus ??