Review: Punk Rock, Lyric Hammersmith, Thursday 16 September 2010

Troubled youth is nothing new. The last hundred years or so have provided us with a host of literary portrayals of adolescent disaffection, depression and violence – J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the controversial German play Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind – several of which are undoubtedly influences on Punk Rock. This, however, does not lessen the impact of Simon Stephens’ articulate, tense and terrifying play, currently being revived at the Lyric Hammersmith almost exactly a year after it premiered there.

Although teenage angst may not be original, Stephens’ play is strikingly current, examining the pressure that Britain’s results-fuelled education system places on its young people and the altogether worrying implications of this. In the setting of a grammar school library, contained fear, anger and violence constantly simmer under the surface of the pupils’ intelligent banter, while the discordant bursts of music that punctuate the scenes notch up the tension. There is the inescapable sense from the very first scene, even as we laugh at the often brilliant dialogue of these gifted teenagers, that something far more sinister lurks around the corner.

The young cast are all excellent, although Rupert Simonian in particular stands out as the awkward and troubled William Carlisle, delivering an increasingly unsettling performance. Mike Noble also impresses in his stage debut, playing bullied but astoundingly intelligent Chadwick, and his apocalyptic vision of humanity has to be the speech of the play. Stephens’ dialogue is dazzling throughout and it is refreshing to see teenagers engaging in lively intellectual debate, even if some exchanges do stretch the imagination slightly.

The dusty library setting, ensconcing the pupils in the suffocating tradition and expectations that they yearn to break free of, is inspired. Similarly to the uninhabited island in Lord of the Flies, it provides a claustrophobic adolescent boiling pot, a world sealed off from adults where emotions escalate. Yet despite the self-contained environment, the play is engaged throughout with the world outside and the wider issues that touch the lives of these youngsters.

Stephens clearly sees a serious problem with the way this country is raising its youth, but neither diagnosis nor cure of this problem are forthcoming. Ultimately Punk Rock projects a bleak vision not unlike Chadwick’s apocalyptic prophecy. The play is made even more unsettling by Stephens’ canny choice of his protagonists’ social class; wealth, intelligence and education no longer offer any promise of happiness or success.

Unfortunately the play is slightly let down by the final scene which, although it provides a couple of thought provoking moments, blunts the raw shock of the library climax. One feels that this is an unnecessary self-indulgence on the part of Stephens; but perhaps considering the brilliance of the rest of the play we can allow him this. The vaguely disappointing ending does not stop this from being one of the most riveting plays I have seen, and I suspect it will be some time before Punk Rock releases its chilling grasp on my thoughts.

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