It’s 1963 and Eddie Birdlace has one more night before him and his fellow marine buddies (Bernstein and Boland – the three bees) ship out to the Vietnam war. Full of the certainty of their invincibility and the promise of a hero’s return, the marines spend their night partaking in a long honoured tradition: the dogfight. A simple premise. Each marine puts in fifty bucks. They throw a party. The marine who can bring the ugliest date wins the leftover money. When Eddie meets Rose he is sure he has found the perfect girl for the dogfight, but he doesn’t bargain for what comes next.
At its heart this is a love story but it is also investigates toxic masculinity. The marines have only had thirteen weeks training, and can’t be more than nineteen years old. They are vessels of a violent and ugly misogyny, but at the same time they are no more than boys, naive and vulnerable, in no way ready to face war. In heartbreaking juxtaposition, Rose is a breath of fresh air to the stage, intelligent, interesting and ultimately kind.
The performers are all members of the British Theatre Academy, which offers accessible training and performance opportunities to young people under the age of twenty three. And what a cast they are. Across the board they are full of energy and conviction, and there isn’t a weak link onstage. Our leading pair played by Stephen Lewis-Johnson and Claire Keenan in this performance – two casts alternate – are brilliant. Keenan is particularly compelling, funny and genuine, immediately likeable. She is utterly engaging to watch. Her and Lewis-Johnson are in turn lovely together, and both vocally really strong. Lewis-Johnson’s lonely return from Vietnam is an undeniably powerful end to the show which he delivers with the full emotional punch it deserves.
The band are faultless. It’s a fantastic score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (both music and lyrics) that they handle with accomplishment and ease.
The set by Dean Johnson and Andrew Exeter is simple but effective. The band, lit by warm lamps are at the back of the stage and the different settings are created by wooden crates. A particularly lovely moment sees light bulbs suspended by cast members to create street lamps around Eddie and Rose on their first date.
This a brilliant and nuanced musical that is delivered by an incredibly talented cast and band.
“these young actors never fall behind as they steer the piece through its minefield of rock ‘n’ roll angst”
When it first woke up Broadway, with a shake of the shoulders, over a decade ago, “Spring Awakening” deflowered the musical theatre form and won eight Tony awards. It was a breath of fresh air and although based on Frank Wedekind’s play from 1891, with its rock infused score it brings Wedekind’s indictment of how kids are mistreated and ignored into the twenty-first century. The British Theatre Academy’s revival at the Stockwell Playhouse, maintains this tradition and is an obvious choice to showcase the talent of these young actors.
It is Germany in the 1890s, a world where the adults hold all the cards, and the classroom of pubescent teenagers are confused, excited, and anxious. The beautiful young Wendla (Charlotte Coe) explores the mysteries of her body, wondering where babies come from while blaming her tight-lipped mother for her ignorance. Meanwhile the fearless and free-thinking Melchior (Max Harwood) placates his buddy, Moritz (James Knudsen), traumatised by puberty in the face of the elders’ repressive morals. The children’s latent sexual feelings all emerge in a haywire hotchpotch of sadomasochistic confusion and, without the guidance they desperately need, there’s tears before bedtime – to say the least. The subject matter doesn’t shy away from controversy. As late as 1965, Wedekind’s original treatment of teenage sex, abortion, parental abuse, depression and suicide was heavily censored and described as “one of the most loathsome and depraved plays I have ever read” by an assessor in the Lord Chamberlain’s office.
Because the themes are still relevant today there is always going to be a distinctly modern feel to this piece. Although here it is also down to the energy and sparkling spirit of the twenty-one strong cast. Supported by a full sounding five-piece band they handle the material with a maturity that belies the teen-rebel lyrics. Admittedly they are given a head start with Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s thrillingly anachronistic score, that mixes seductive melancholy with pop-punk grittiness, but these young actors never fall behind as they steer the piece through its minefield of rock ‘n’ roll angst.
At the helm are Harwood’s Melchior and Coe’s Wendla, their voices rising above the turmoil as they grapple with their anxious souls and unschooled seductions. They are kept aloft by the shining ensemble, from which some voices definitely stand out, particularly the underused James Dodd as Ernst (who’s crying out for more of the libretto) and Jamie Heward as the cross-dressing Hänschen.
It is a feast for the ears, but we never really feel the force of the emotional punch. Inevitably much of the subtlety and the shading of Wedekind’s original text are going to be sacrificed while making room for the musical numbers. Nevertheless, we’re not looking for an intricate insight into the character’s psychology here. Wedekind’s play will provide that. Although I would have liked to have felt more moved by these disparate and desperate individuals as they tread their doom-laden path. The impact is musical, not dramatic, but we leave the space re-awakened to the power of song, thanks to this dedicated and gifted cast.