Writer: Gregory S. Moss
Director: Tom Hughes
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Among the many other anniversaries being celebrated this year, the origins of punk is one of the most significant, although it has been uncharacteristically quiet so far. Following on from Somerset House’s excellent exhibition of punk-influenced band The Jam last year, the British Library recently opened its own examination of the impact of the crucial years 1976-1978 on design, fashion and music. Finally, theatre has caught up with the UK premiere of punkplay, looking at the influence of punk on two teenagers in 80s America.
Gregory S. Moss’ play, written at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, is the story of Duck and Micky, two slightly nerdy kids who at the tail end of punk’s influence form a band and begin to style their clothes, hair and attitude to fit with their idols. Duck is desperate to escape a life in the army which his dad thinks will teach him discipline, while Micky is trying to work out who he is. Over the course of a year, they try to navigate girls, music and friendship while living by the ‘rules’ of punk.
At heart, punkplay is a sweet coming-of-age story as two young men attempt a modicum of rebellion that is largely a front for their own fears about growing up. What separates this from an average night at the theatre is Moss’ mixture of completely straight and entirely surreal scenes which take the work in unexpected directions. There is also an 80s cinema aesthetic that borrows from the style and tone of the eras teenage comedy-dramas from The Breakfast Club to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with a touch of the more recent Napoleon Dynamite thrown in. It all takes place on roller skates for reasons that become apparent, but it couldn’t be further from Starlight Express, and several dream sequences are played out. In short, it’s probably an acquired taste.
For a play written some time ago and set 30 years back, it feels incrediblyfresh and entirely relevant. Its focus on punk is a means to address wider themes about the transition to adulthood and the futility of fighting against forces you can’t control. Each time Mickey and Duck appear they have adopted a new physical trapping of the punk style from Mohawks to band t-shirts, dyed hair to self-inflicted scars – examples of them seeking uniformity in rebellion. The punk style, as director Tom Hughes explains in the fanzine-style programme, became incredibly mainstream and entirely governed by sets of rules it initially fought so hard against, and that sense of conformity comes across strongly in this production.
The two leads are nicely complex with Matthew Castle’s Duck taking the role of the more dominant friend whose anger drives the pairing to engage more fully in the punk scene. That initial enthusiasm is nicely charted by Castle who retains an underlying vulnerability throughout. Equally impressive is Sam Perry as the geeky Mickey, clearly the weaker personality and somewhat idolising his slightly cooler friend, while making all those growing-pains so vivid. Both are relatively recent drama graduates who bring a freshness and skill to the roles that keeps the audience on their side – despite the purposefully awful music they create.
Cecile Tremolieres design gives punkplay a suitably grungy but bright 80s feel with its tones of pink and blue, while Hughes’ direction, as you’d expect from someone who’s worked with Rufus Norris and Carrie Cracknell, creates a sharp and atmospheric tone that balances the heartfelt and eccentric moments well. This certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste and it’s self-awareness at times is too obvious, but this charming tale of punk wannabes is essentially about two sweetly inept boys finding their way. As Duck says: it’s ‘so f*cking punk!’
Runs until: 1 October 2016 | Image: Helen Murray