‘The function of art is to unsettle and trouble, to provoke and excite, to alarm and inspire’, playwright Simon Stephens has said.
As a school boy in a Stockport single sex comprehensive, Stephens found the town centre – a satellite suburb of Manchester – ‘ a fine breeding ground for watchfulness’. At 17, Friday and Saturday nights were spent hanging around the Merseyway shopping centre, a place where ‘it could kick off any minute’.
Archie Thomson’s blistering production of ‘Punk Rock’ gripped from the start, and never lost pace. His cast were uniformly excellent – their ensemble playing powerful, nuanced and sure-footed.
This polished production owed much to team effort, from Assistant Director Shrai Popat, producer Charlie Campbell and the set design and lighting by Izzy Boscawen and Emma Irving and Chris Burr.
Set in a fee-paying ex-grammar school, seven bright students prepare for mock ‘A’ levels. The Upper School Library is their refuge, their territory – and their Colosseum.
William (Hamish Forbes) is an intense Oxbridge hopeful, whose offers to show sassy pink-haired new student Lily (Isobel Jesper Jones) a second edition Sir Walter Scott as a love gift. Hardly surprisingly, Lily prefers amiable jock Nicholas (Charlie Macvicar). They agree to keep their relationship under wraps.
Adding to the sexual charge of this intense hormonal primordial soup is the languid charisma which drips off insouciant Bennett (Keelan Kember), and his feisty, driven girlfriend Cissy (Ali Ackland Snow). Decent, good hearted Tanya (Clara Davis) has eyes only for her English master – and he the hands, from all accounts.
Watchful, geeky , Rubik’s cube playing Cambridge aspirant - gangly mathematician Chadwick (George Varley) - is the butt of Bennet’s bullying . Bennet’s brutality resists intervention and appears oddly over the top. Only his bare skin reveals more.
This is a dark prism we’re looking through. In Stephens’ school the unconventional was perceived as ‘just being f***ing odd’. Stephens’ anger lights the touch paper of Chadwick’s apocalyptic vision - beyond the fists and the verbals. It’s only one nightmare scenario awaiting his classmates.
Although teenage angst has been portrayed many times before, I’ve rarely seen a production where the play, the casting, the direction and the audience were so finely tuned to one another – it felt like a single cell thickness between us. Stephens is not just a master of the generic – he has a gimlet eye for the particular which keeps the play fresh, contemporary and relevant.
In the scene of self harm, you could hear an iPhone on silent. The whole room held their breath.
Complex, difficult, passionate, deceptive – sometimes the scene breaks in Punk Rock just said it all: naked aggression, meaningless targeting, unhappiness, stress, and all executed with such high energy the stage fizzed and flashed. Not to mention the sharp retort.
But that’s for later. You should cry if you missed this one. It was a rare cracker.