Hope Mill has staged one mould-breaking rock musical with Hair, and now tackles Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s 2006 Tony-award-laden indie-rock musical. There are pleasures, but director Luke Sheppard and his youthful cast never quite crack it open and make us see it afresh.
Frames of pressed butterflies adorn the walls of the Victorian school classroom in this show inspired by Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play. In Sheppard’s production, which over two hours cleverly employs lighting to move the story from the 19th into the 21st century, the teenage girls wear dresses with bat-wing arms. But no one flies. Ilse (Teleri Hughes) and Martha (Seyi Omooba) are crushed by parental abuse; Nikita Johal’s underpowered Wendla is pinned and destroyed by her mother’s inability to tell her the facts of life.
As late as 1965, Wedekind’s frank treatment of teenage sex, abortion, parental abuse, depression and suicide was subject to censorship and described as “one of the most loathsome and depraved plays I have ever read” by an examiner in the Lord Chamberlain’s office.
Now it is the adult failings that look loathsome, particularly in a world where it is the teenage survivors of the Parkland shootings who are seeking to make the changes their elders refuse to tackle. Even so, the adults are too overemphatic and shouty here.
Sater and Sheik keep the story largely intact and weave through it a series of angst-filled ballads and furious anthems, including the brilliant Totally Fucked. Through the music we get to experience the inner lives of a group of hormonally feverish teenagers, cowed by the education system and parental power.
“Jesus Christ, give me the consumption and take those sticky dreams away from me,” laments Jabez Sykes’s excellent, lanky, vulnerable Moritz who, at 15, already feels as if he is a failure. Hughes makes a terrific debut as Ilse, paying the price for her father’s sins against her. Darragh Cowley’s rebellious Melchior and Adam Dawson’s Hanschen sing their hearts out, but are both too knowing and predatory to ever evoke sympathy.
• At Hope Mill, Manchester, until 3 May. Box office: 0333-012 4963.