Punk Rock

Punk Rock
By Simon Stephens. Patalog Theatre. At fortyfivedownstairs, Flinders Lane. 4 – 15 December 2019

This 2009 play has not dated at all.  If anything, it is more timely, more plugged into the zeitgeist than ever.  Perhaps that is one reason there is another production of it somewhere, every couple of years, including in Spain and France.  It is set in an English private school, specifically in the seniors’ library, which no adult – at least in the play – ever enters.  The characters are teenagers, but this is not The O.C. or the confected angst of Home & Away.  These teenagers are in the midst of their ‘trial’ A-level exams – but that provides just one more pressure on them.  The subtext throughout is fear and we see how fear can develop into rage and violence.

There is Nicholas (Flynn Smeaton), the jock, perhaps the most straightforward and empathetic of these kids.  Tanya (Annie Shapiro) nurses a crush on one of their teachers and is mocked for it.  Bennett (Karl Richmond) is loud, a restless bully, his attempts to control the others a front for his anxieties about his sexuality.  His girlfriend, supposedly, is Cissy (Ruby Duncan): she can’t keep still, buzzing about like a fly in a bottle, her fears all on the surface.  Chadwick (Laurence Boxhall) is the quiet, recessive, literal-minded and humourless boy, the butt of the others’ teasing.  William (Ben Walter) over-articulate but awkward, is a boy who would so love to be the alpha-male but painfully isn’t.  Lily (Zoe Hawkins) is the newcomer – quiet and self-possessed, she won’t be drawn in, but that’s her defence…

For the length of the play these characters (‘archetypes’ rather than stereotypes, claims playwright Stephens) clash and ricochet, challenge, tease, belittle and intimidate.  Some find love.  Most don’t.  Chadwick, the nerd, cuts through the aggression and everyday anxieties to deliver an apocalyptic prediction of the future – that is, their future – which underlies the displaced fears of all of them.  With Sydney under a blanketing cloud of bushfire smoke and the poles melting, Chadwick’s speculations are more resonant and more terrifying than ever. 

Director Ruby Rees is very skilled: she keeps her characters on the move, reflecting their stifled energy, and she elicits detailed, very real performances from this excellent cast: each is excellent in his or her way.  If, for instance, the shocking climax is not quite as well prepared as it might be in the text, Ben Walter’s layered performance as William makes us believe it. 

While the action is punctuated with deafening bursts of the eponymous punk rock and frenetic out-of-character action by the characters in half-light (the design is by Richard Vabre), there are also almost ritualised scene changes by stage manager Ashleigh Walwyn and her crew in full light, undercutting the heightened realism of the characters’ exchanges, reminding us that this is a play and giving us time to think.  Ruby Rees also eschews the ‘posh’ nature of the school: the ‘library’ is simply a shabby, paint-peeling area of the fortyfivedownstairs space, and there are also the characters’ individual versions of school uniform (design by Freya Allen) - so that these could be the jumpy, noisy kids you see on the train or tram at half-past three. 

But there’s also a rather redundant epilogue in which a psychiatrist ‘Richard Harvey’ (but played by Jessica Clarke – a false note and a let-down so late in the piece – although that’s no reflection on Jessica Clarke) appears for the first time.  This tacked-on scene is a fine example of a disturbed but now restless audience thinking, ‘But it’s over…

If the play has deficiencies (such as Cissy and Tanya being perhaps underwritten, some clunky ‘author’s message’ dialogue and it’s being just a little too long), the quality of the performances, Ms Rees’ direction and the overall psychological insights overcome such things.  Some have objected that the play is ‘derivative’, citing such precursors as Lord of the Flies and even Catcher in the Rye (!).  I’ve no idea what this means except that this is Simon Stephens’ take on this representative age-group who will now inherit the future.  Punk Rock ­– the title reflects what punk rock represents – rage and rebellion – absolutely real but having have no way forward - is a powerful play, powerfully realised.

Michael Brindley        

Photogapher: Craig Fuller

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