Writer: Simon Stephens
Director: Selina Cartmell
Reviewer: Megan W. Minogue
We’ve all been there: pressurizing parents, unrequited love, schoolyard bullies. These are the experiences that have in part shaped our own adolescence, and are perhaps the reasons why Punk Rock has been able to resonate so strongly with multiple generations of theatre-goers since its debut at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2009. Set in a sixth form study hall in Stockport, England, the cast of characters is initially somewhat predictable: Lilly (Lauren Coe), the new girl at school; William (Rhys Dunlop), an intelligent loner who immediately fancies her; Bennett (Ian Toner), the abrasive bully with a secret; his girlfriend Cissy (Aisha Fabienne Ross), who strives for nothing less than A*s; Nicholas (Jonah Hauer-King), the likeable jock; Tanya (Laura Smithers), who harbours a not-so-secret crush on her English teacher; and Chadwick (Rory Corcoran), an easy target for Bennett’s bullying due to his social awkwardness.
As love triangles emerge and imperfect family lives are tentatively revealed, we begin to get clearer pictures of these young men and women, and they move well beyond the stock characters we may have initially expected. Overall, the cast deliver compelling performances, though some are more striking than others. Rhys Dunlop as William is especially strong in his ability to shift the audience’s allegiances, with regards to both himself and other characters. His attempt at asking out Lilly forms one of the most fun interchanges in the play, and perhaps Lauren Coe’s best scene. But the scene also reveals their underlying issues – compulsive lying, parental alcoholism, and self-harming among them – and the characters’ sense of futility when faced with the outside world. Rory Corcoran as Chadwick gives another strong performance, not least because of his dead pan delivery of certain lines, which had the audience in stiches. Laura Smithers’ Tanya does her best to fight Chadwick’s corner when he comes under attack from Bennett, and her performance is especially riveting in the penultimate scene of the play. Nicholas and Cissy are given the least room to develop, but Jonah Hauer-King and Aisha Fabienne Ross give solid and confident performances, especially as the action reaches breaking point.
For Punk Rock, the Danske Bank Stage of the Lyric Theatre is transformed into a familiar school study hall, complete with cheap lino flooring and dingy lockers. Though the space is quite large, the actors fill it comfortably and often seem just an arm’s reach from the audience. The lighting works especially well during set changes, which are also punctuated with blaring music and frenetic movements. The most striking change is an extended sequence set to The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl”: Lilly, Tanya, and Cissy sit and stomp their feet in sync in between moving their chairs across the room, and the audience sees that it’s not only the girls who are the objects of the boys’ affections.
While the material itself can be described as somewhat derivative – the characters and plotlines of Skins, Elephant, and The History Boys immediately spring to mind – Punk Rock still manages to shock us, confound us, and make us laugh. The issues it touches upon are obviously relevant for today’s young people, but the play also reminds their parents that they, too, were teenagers once.
NB: The Lyric Theatre is offering £10 student tickets for ALL performances ofPunk Rock.
Photo courtesy of the Lyric Theatre. Runs until 6th September 2014