Punk Rock @ Lyric Hammersmith, London

cast list
Rupert Simonian, Laura Pyper, Edward Franklin, Ruth Milne, Katie West, Nicholas Banks, Mike Noble, Juliet York, Simon Wolfe

directed by
Sarah Frankcom

Simon Stephen’s Punk Rock was a hit at the Lyric last year and is returning for a second brief run with a new, young cast before going on tour. The play is set in a middle class school in Stockport, with a group of teens facing up to their uncertain futures as insecurities and petty rivalries spiral into tragedy. As a deliberate attempt to engage a younger audience, the play is a reasonable success – the crowd of school agers sitting in the first few rows seemed quite taken – but as a drama, while ambitious, it’s also flawed. The new cast are impressive, although they do have a tendency to stare meaningfully out at the audience – too often it feels like you’re watching people reading a script out loud.

Rupert Simonian stands out as William, the initially charming but ultimately unstable nerd, giving his character a nervy fluidity that works well in the role, and Laura Pyper has a spiky charm as the newcomer whose arrival acts as a catalyst for disaster.

Edward Franklin, the possibly-secretly-gay bully, verges on caricature but is suitably nasty. Mike Noble (the main object of his ire) is also slightly too much of a stereotype, as is Nicholas Banks nice-but-dim sporty type. Katie West as the ‘chubby, plain girl is funny and sympathetic, while Ruth Milne makes good work of the more interesting role of the popular over-achiever who secretly realises that her boyfriend is actually a bit of a prick.

There are some beautifully observed moments – a bullying scene captures perfectly the conspiracy of fear and embarrassment that stops a crowd coming to a victim’s defence, and the play perfectly illustrates how easy it is to devastate someone with casual cruelty; when Franklin taunts West for being fat, it feels almost worse than his more physical acts of menace. There are plenty of laughs, too – the script is often sharp and pleasingly biting, but too often the characters make speeches rather than have conversations.

The set by Paul Wills is effective; the claustrophobic old school library, seasoned by the weight of history and expectation, reflects the dilemma of the pupils, and serves the action well. The soundtrack is used to good effect, creating a jarring break between scenes that echoes the dysfunction of the characters.

The play is slightly too long – some scenes could have been usefully trimmed to keep up the momentum – and the violent denouement feels artificial and Americanised, at odds with the staunchly British tone of the rest of the piece. While the coda has some interesting – if not original – points to make about the nature of celebrity, it feels like it stems from a dramatic conceit rather than plausibility.

Ultimately what could have been an interesting study of modern youth is brought short by its very artifice. In the end it’s about as punk rock as Jedward; its overly-articulate teens may be funny – they may even occasionally be moving – but they never feel truly real.

Punk Rock will be at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, from 21-25 September 2010

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