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Punk Rock reviewed

Philip Hamer hails a new play at the Royal Exchange as an anthem for doomed youth

Published on October 14th 2009.

Punk Rock reviewed

Punk Rock comes to the Royal Exchange fresh from its premiere at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. This is the first time that an Exchange production has debuted elsewhere, but Punk Rock is worth the wait. After seeing this play, critics have described its Olivier Award-winning writer Simon Stephens as one of the most talented dramatists to emerge in recent years.

It is the remarkable Royal Exchange Theatre space that truly enhances the production. It invites you to join the sixth formers in the library and when the mayhem ensues, never lets you leave.

It takes place in the library of a fee-paying grammar school in Stockport, Stephens’ home town. His seven sixth formers, four boys and three girls, represent the competing egos and colliding angst of arrogant, precocious teenagers.

Punk Rock pulsates with the buzzing energy of highly intelligent and privileged youth. Stephens depicts this as a powerful blend of faux cynicism and confused optimism spiked through with shards of unspeakable, interpersonal cruelty. At its core though is an unpredictable nihilism that erupts into violence when the play’s troubled protagonist William Carlisle, brilliantly portrayed by Tom Sturridge, bursts into the library waving a loaded gun.

Stephens sets the action against the intellectual hot-house of mock A-level exams, and in its early stages before darkness descends, it is marvelously funny. Later, Stephens moves into the territory of novelistic heavyweights William Golding and Ian McEwan, reminding us how malevolent young minds can be when there are no adults around. Pointedly, you never meet their teachers.

The demands upon the audience are many. The action runs for just under two hours. There is no interval. And as you might expect given the age of the characters and the locale, the language is as graphic as any I’ve heard in the theatre. Occasionally the desire to present acutely contemporaneous language seems too forced. But this is a small quibble, dwarfed by the fact that at this production’s heart is that magical quality exclusive to theatre as an art form: that nothing is ever what it really appears to be.

The performances and Sarah Frankcom’s direction are extremely assured. Though once again it is the remarkable Royal Exchange Theatre space that truly enhances the production. It invites you to join the sixth formers in the library and when the mayhem ensues, never lets you leave. The action becomes almost too unbearable to watch and some theatregoers near me covered their eyes as the tension was notched up.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that Stephens is a remarkable talent. By highlighting the schisms that society’s overblown expectations can cause in young people, he has given us a theatre visit that will not easily fade from memory.

Royal Exchange Theatre, until 31 October, www.royalexchangetheatre.org.uk

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9 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AlfieOctober 14th 2009.

My partner and I were looking at our watches half an hour after it started. Didn't like it at all, if we were at the cinema we would have left before the end, shame there wasn't an interval but I know why now. Punk Rock? why?

eh?October 14th 2009.

Stuie- so you went to a play called "Punk rock" and you're now asking "why punk rock"?

kath robinsonOctober 14th 2009.

Brilliantly performed, the only memorable thing about it.writing is pretentious tosh not worthy of RX

AnonymousOctober 14th 2009.

A play where great actors and tension carry it through although let down by issues in the writing. It's as if Simon Stephens started with his climactic scene and rode roughshod over things to get to that conclusion without too much regard for reality in interaction between characters. Still worth a visit though.

JNOctober 14th 2009.

I have mixed feelings about the play itself but spent most of it struggling to get past the ACCENTS - I was a sixth-former in Stockport and heard very few Estuary vowels, much less that bizarre hybrid of Scots and Scouse. Shame, as the performances were otherwise great.

benOctober 14th 2009.

I'm really sorry, but this play was awful. Whilst the actors are undoubtedly accomplished, and the Royal Exchange produced a fantastic set as always, the play itself was quite frankly adolescent.

CarlOctober 14th 2009.

I absolutely loved it and I've not stopped talking about it. I cannot recommend this play enough. I think I have to go and see it again! Great performance.

StuieOctober 14th 2009.

I have to agree with ben. Too long! Why Punk Rock? Couldn't wait till it finished.

John GrahamOctober 14th 2009.

Wonderful play, I recommend it.

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