When Andrew Panton was appointed artistic director of the Dundee Rep Ensemble last year, he made it clear that he would combine the role with his continuing commitment to teaching music theatre at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow. And now, he brings those twin passions together in a truly outstanding Dundee-RCS co-production of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s 2006 musical, which takes Frank Wedekind’s brilliantly radical play Spring Awakening, and gives it the kind of musical edge that Wedekind would have loved, making it real for a brand new generation.
Royal Conservatoire, Glasgow ***** | Oran Mor, Glasgow **** | Festival Theatre, Edinburgh ***
Completed in 1891, when Wedekind was 27, Spring Awakening is a play about teenage sexuality so explosive that it was not performed at all until 1906, and rarely seen anywhere until after the Second World War. From pornography and masturbation to teenage pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality, sexual and physical abuse in the family, extreme academic pressure and the threat of suicide, there is hardly a painful issue in teenage life, then or now, that does not feature in Wedekind’s drama; and yet his central characters – young rebel Melchior, his love Wendla, and his troubled best friend Moritz – are so strong and well-realised that the drama is also immensely gripping as a simple human story of young people up against it, in a brutal and uncaring system.
Sheik and Sater’s musical version is almost entirely faithful to Wedekind’s narrative, piecing it out with passionate songs and choruses, from ballads to raw melodic metal, that only add to its strange piercing power; and in a beautifully-staged production – with a fine, flexible gym-hall set by Kenneth MacLeod, backed by a seven-piece student band – Andrew Panton and his 17-strong cast give every moment of the drama its full value, passionate, erotic, comic and tragic. And although the fierce sexual repression portrayed by Wedekind is long gone in most parts of the west, there is still something searingly familiar in the young people’s desperate rebellion against an adult world that has failed them; not least in the week when a generation of American school kids walked out of their classrooms, to protest that adults have failed in their basic duty to protect their lives, and that now, they must act for themselves.
If our society still often fails its youngsters, it sometimes treats those at the end of life no better; and journalist Alan Muir’s debut Play, Pie And Pint show spins out a strong, humorous and compassionate if slightly couthy tale of old Jimmy, serving out his last years in a Glasgow care home. Still sharp as a tack, Jimmy is nonetheless not widely believed – even by his friendly care worker – when he tells the tale of how, as a young boxer, he once sparred with Mohammed Ali in Giffnock, and actually knocked The Greatest off his feet.
There’s a subtle change in Jimmy’s life, though, when a teenage girl called Orwell wanders into his room and starts to take an interest in his stories. In the end, it turns out that it’s all true, as Muir uses Jimmy’s story to resurrect a forgotten piece of Scottish sporting history, involving Ali’s brief appearance at Paisley Ice Rink in 1965. And with William McBain and Rebekah Lumsden acting up a storm as Jimmy and Orwell, we’re even inclined – after 50 minutes of good laughs and quiet observation – to forgive the show the cheesy but delightful theatrical twist Muir can’t resist putting in its tail.
The Greatest is packing them in downstairs at Oran Mor; but if you want to see really big crowds in Scottish theatre this week, try the 1,900-seat Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, where Mischief Theatre’s 2012 hit The Play That Goes Wrong – in which an amateur theatre company try to stage an Agatha-Christie-type thriller, and the set falls apart so spectacularly that the show descends into chaos – has just become one of the most successful non-musical shows ever staged there.
It would be possible, of course, to write a depressed paragraph or three about this phenomenon, and how, for 21st century audiences, theatre is now apparently at its most entertaining when reduced to an over-extended retro joke about itself. Instead, though, I’ll just say that the show is performed with great skill and good humour by a brilliant young company; and – to paraphrase Muriel Spark – that for those who like this kind of thing, this is definitely a show they not only like, but absolutely adore.
Spring Awakening at Dundee Rep, 22-24 March. The Greatest and The Play That Goes Wrong, final performances today.