Ingestre Hall, Staffordshire, Tuesday 5th June, 2012
Frank Wedekind practically invented the teenager with his controversial play in 1892. What the characters go through in two hours would fill six months of Hollyoaks. In 2006, the play was adapted into a rock musical, retaining the original late 19th century German setting. The idea is that the modern music shows us how relevant the issues and ordeals are to teens and parents today. It could be argued that Wedekind’s original does the job well enough on its own but the musical has given the work a new lease of life and introduced it to a new audience.
“Sajja Arts” brings the musical to a rather grandiose venue, former stately home, Ingestre Hall. It is not traditionally a space for theatre. The wooden panels of the Hall lend themselves well to the stuffy school setting and the persistence of tradition but on the whole, I found the performance at odds with the room. It is not a good fit.
Director Richard Poynton opts for a traverse staging. The audience is divided into two sets of rows facing each other across a central strip of performance space. At one end is a mound of old books; at the other a stylised representation of a cornfield. There are problems with sightlines. I was on the end of the second row and when things were happening in the cornfield area I couldn’t see at all. If the actors sat on the floor, forget it. With traverse, you either have to rake the seating so the audience is looking over each other’s heads rather than trying to look through them, or you have to raise the ends of the performance space, or else half the action is lost. It’s all very well if you’re on a front row. Not much cop for anyone else.
There are also big problems with sound. This was opening night so I hope this can be addressed for the rest of the run. The singing is swamped by the backing tracks. Soloists are overwhelmed by backing singers. It is such a shame. The score by Ducan Sheik is stirring and atmospheric but Steven Sater’s lyrics are all but lost.
It is a pity when the cast are working so hard and trying to demonstrate their talents. Ryan Gilbody is a handsome but po-faced Melchior, the school know-it-all. He has good stage presence and an expressive and versatile singing voice – when the staging allows us to see and hear him, that is. Kris J Davis impresses as twitchy, troubled Moritz whose failure at school leads to suicide. Hannah Wyss captures Wendler’s innocence but unfortunately most of her sweet singing is drowned out by the poor sound mix. The rest of the ensemble depict the growing sensuality of adolescence with conviction and humour. For example, Lee Powell’s Georg has a piano lesson with some very funny Carry On style faces. Strongest of the bunch for me was Annie Blackwell’s Martha, whose vocals soared above the rest. Her solo about abuse at the hands (and belt buckle) of her father was a particularly powerful moment.
Able support is given by Steph Coleman who plays all the adult women, with the director himself playing all the adult men. The suggestion is that all grown-ups are the same in their failure to communicate with their offspring or charges. The play is a plea for openness about sex and sex education. Anti-liberal education and puritanical parenting lead to disasters: teen pregnancy, suicide, death by backstreet abortion… I came away impressed by the cast, but frustrated by the venue that got in their way.