Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Punk Rock

Simon Stephens
Lyric, Hammersmith
(2009)

Production photo

From this portrait of the depression of life for rich and poor in his home town of Stockport seen through the eyes of wealthy if disaffected teenagers, Simon Stephens draws a vision of our dystopian future.

He achieves his goal in spectacular fashion in a play that initially appears drawn from the History Boys/Spring Awakening stable.

By the end, which perhaps has more in common with Hamlet and could be seen as the ultimate advert for single sex education, we begin to understand the thought concerns and obsessions of seventeen-year-olds today.

Those are the massive upsides in a thoughtful drama that takes on big issues. However, they come at a cost, as a couple of the characters are too clearly created to make political points while a pivotal scene that sets up the final drama stretched credibility way too far.

Punk Rock is set in a Paul Wills-designed curving, dark wood library left over from the days when cotton made the Manchester area wealthy beyond greedy industrialists' wildest dreams. This is where the Grammar School sixth formers congregate to chat, study and flirt as they await their mock A Levels.

They are a typical bunch. We first meet ordinary, shy William and the more worldly new girl Lily, played by the evening's best actors Tom Sturridge and Jessica Raine in a tyro cast with virtually no previous stage experience. They form part of a gang that comprises three boys, three girls and a mildly autistic, effectively genderless genius.

Stephens has worked hard to bring out different traits in his characters, although lack of intelligence is not an option in this class of beautiful people. The mix features a tedious, typically weak bully and a couple of victims, deep thinkers, a very young earth mother and shallow brainboxes who more accurately reflect the vacuity and "whatever" attitude of life in the real world that they will soon inhabit.

The scenes of seduction and rejection are both witty and heartbreaking, while the boastfulness of these future masters and mistresses of the universe irritates but rings true.

After three-quarters of the 105 minutes, we move on to a different level, as pre-exam stress begins to boil over and something a little nastier develops, led by the class bully. The problem is that his behaviour is so far over the top that someone would have stepped in, though by doing so they would have eliminated the explosive final scenes and in doing so removed the purpose of the play.

Manchester Royal Exchange's Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom works wonders in this co-production with a highly talented but inexperienced cast, several of whom get great monologues.

None is better than the Revelations-style diatribe against our wilful global destruction delivered by Harry McEntyre playing introverted literal anorak Chadwick, which drew spontaneous applause from an enthusiastic first night audience.

Despite some reservations, Punk Rock is an entertaining, issue-led contemporary drama that sees our dysfunctional society through fresh eyes and that is something pretty unusual.

David Chadderton reviewed this production at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

Reviewer: Philip Fisher