Exactly one year after making its debut on stage at the Lyric Theatre, Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock crashes back to Hammersmith with an updated cast of bright young things.
While one may question the cultural relevance of punk rock to a play that was written in 2009 and which doesn’t (strictly speaking) feature any punk rock, the title evokes all the turbulence, confusion and anarchy so palpable both in adolescence and on stage in Sarah Frankcom’s production.
Dissatisfied with how children were often presented in plays he previously encountered, Stephens (who also co-wrote the BBC’s wonderful Dive) wrote Punk Rock with a view to give teenagers the voice and vivacity that he knew them to have after working as a teacher in a Dagenham comprehensive school for a year. Energetic and vivacious Stephens’ characters most certainly are.
Hormones and emotions are running high in the run up to the A-level mock exams. Lily is the new girl at a high-performing Stockport grammar school, quickly enamouring compulsive liar, William, whilst beginning a clandestine relationship with gym-addict, Nicholas. “Fat Tanya” (who isn’t actually fat) is in love with a teacher; Chadwick is better at Maths than social interaction and is bullied by Bennett as Bennett’s girlfriend Cissy looks on, powerless.
Through the stellar dialogue – hilarious, sharp and profound all at once – and action, Stephens exposes and reminds us of what it is to be young in today’s world. Relentless pressure to achieve, finding one’s way, the anger that lurks within. These are not quandaries that disappear at the magic age of eighteen, but extend many years into one’s twenties. Indeed, his characters have the philosophical viewpoints and express these with the clarity of people way beyond seventeen, or at least compared to me at seventeen when nought but booze, boys and frivolity seemed to matter.
Taking place in the school library, what starts as seemingly benign banter progresses to cruel bullying and ends with brutality. The cast bounce off each other wonderfully, making one hang onto every word of their conversations throughout each minute of each half. Edward Franklin is particularly superb as the dickish Bennett who vents his confusion about his sexual persuasion through perverse bullying antics (“you looks so gay you make me want to do a piss”), mainly directed at science-geek, Chadwick.
This year, Rupert Simonian, a physical contrast to last year’s tall, dark Tom Sturridge, takes the role of William – the schizophrenic bringer of violence. While more hobbit-like in appearance, Simonian excels as the killer who finishes his spree by pissing himself. Paul Wills’ beautiful stage set gives the school library a gloriously old-school, Hogwarts-esque feel to it: quite at odds with the ear-drum splitting sounds of Sonic Youth, The Stooges and The White Stripes that punctuate each scene change. Punk Rock is as fresh as it is dark and is sure to shock and make you laugh. A perfect way to start the new school year.
Catch it at the Lyric, Hammersmith, until September 18th. For tour dates and venues: http://www.lyric.co.uk/whats-on/production/punk-rock/tour-venues/#production-content