Tom Sturridge, Hary McEntire, Jessica Raine, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Sophie Wu, Katie West, Nicholas Banks, Ghazaleh Golpira, Simon Wolfe
It begins with a humming, an ominous, scratchy, occasionally explosive sound.
In this way a sense of unease is present from the beginning of Simon Stephens latest play as, in the grand library of a Stockport grammar school, two uniformed students, a girl and a boy, enter into a rapid dance of words as they try to get a handle on one another, each constantly assessing, examining and recalibrating their opinion of the other.
The girl is Lilly (played by Harper Regan‘s Jessica Raine). She’s new to the school, with an itinerant academic for a father; a practiced air of confidence masks her insecurities.
The boy is William (Tom Sturridge); hes smart and charismatic with a somewhat slanted view of the world and a tendency to bend the truth, clearly not one of the cool kid but not an outcast either.
The other characters are initially easier to identify as certain teen types: theres the intelligent but socially awkward kid, the bully, the amiable sporty one, and the girl who demands constant reassurances of her thinness and her academic prowess. But playwright Simon Stephens is not content to leave it there. He steers his characters in intriguing and unexpected directions.
Henry Lloyd Hughes Bennett has the air of a privileged young man accustomed to getting what he wants (his family plan to spend Christmas in Reykjavik). His increasingly aggressive bullying of the enigmatic Chadwick Mead comes across as someone testing the boundaries of what he can get away, like a toddler eyeing a flight of stairs. When he spits at one of his classmates he does so simply to see what it feels like; a degree of sexual uncertainty is also hinted at.
Chadwicks school survival strategy involves distancing himself from the world he seems poorly designed to fit into; humanity, he declares in a potent monologue, is a lost cause. He cant be touched by taunts or threats. He is beyond all that.
Stephens, who once worked as a teacher, successfully captures what it is to be a teenager in an academically competitive environment, where the pressure to succeed is considerable and there is a real fear, as one girl wails, that if they dont do well at this stage of their lives then theyll never get out of Stockport. In their world one dropped grade is a huge, future-threatening crisis. The dialogue also, for the most part, feels believable. His characters converse with a familiar kind of adolescent eloquence and their conversations are full of subtle role playing and social experimentation, affected archaisms and look-at-me flourishes; at times they sound incredibly mature while elsewhere their speech is flecked with playground crudity. With exception of the brief, oddly flat epilogue, adults are absent from this world. Teachers are there to be ridiculed or pitied and parents are foggy outlines at best, they barely exist.
Sarah Frankcoms production feels like a companion piece of sorts to the Lyrics previous staging of the Broadway musical, Spring Awakening. Both feature young (though not quite young enough) casts, many of whom are making their professional stage debut, and the Frank Wedekind play on which the former is based is cited by Stephens as a key influence, along with Gus Van Sants Elephant and Lindsay Andersons If….
These influences provides some idea of the, somewhat predictable, place the play ends up taking its characters to. A growing sense of menace underlines events (which is enhanced by bursts of deafening, distorting music: Nirvana, White Stripes no actual punk rock). The violence is more surprising in the shape it takes rather than in its coming and though very, very tensely staged, the penultimate scene undermines some of the subtleties of what went before. The play suddenly becomes a quite different thing, and while Stephens wants to suggest that the capacity for violence and extreme emotional disturbance is not dictated solely by poverty and that a very narrow view of what it means to be successful blots young peoples lives, he ends up writing himself into a corner.
The cast – Tom Sturridges William in particular are convincing in their roles even when the script doesnt always deliver (Lillys too-quick admission of her self harming habit feels like a box being ticked on a chart of teen angst clichs). The performers ably negotiate the switches from naturalistic teen banter to more richly lyrical passages and Paul Wills’ set, a visually striking circular library, is fittingly slightly filmic and unreal.
The play youthful and daring but still primarily a piece of entertainment makes an apt start for Sean Holmes tenure as artistic director at Lyric and only enhances Simon Stephens growing status as a truly exciting writer, whose work generates a justified buzz of anticipation.
Punk Rock is at the Lyric until 26 September and then at the Manchester Royal Exchange from 7-31 October 2009