Thursday, August 14, 2014

Punk Rock - dark teenage school days brought to life in the Lyric Theatre (until 6 September) #LyricPunk

While the open stage in the Lyric Theatre has always put audiences up close to the action, the isometric perspective set, tiled floor, individual metal-legged tables, and wood-covered walls mean that audiences for Punk Rock walk into the school of their childhood rather than a theatre. However, much deeper memories are stirred up in audience as the troubled lives of the seven troubled sixth-form students unfold on stage during the first act.

The play is set in late 2008. Lilly (played by Lauren Coe) is new to this Stockport fee-paying grammar school. At first bright and breezy, she has the audience’s empathy wrapped around her little finger very quickly. The first fellow pupil she encounters is William (Rhys Dunlop) who knows every detail of the school’s layout: he’s quite manic, wandering around with a lollipop in his hand, talking too much, giving too much detail.

The cast is full of characters you know from school. A girl (Cissy, Aisha Fabienne Ross) who struts around like a peahen, subservient to her bully of a boyfriend (Bennett, Ian Toner). A boy (Nicholas, Jonah Hauer-King) with the designer gear uniform. A girl (Tanya, Laura Smithers) who prefers to sit at the edge of the group, watching rather than leading. And the amazingly smart, well-mannered, socially awkward anoraked boy (Chadwick, Rory Corcoran) who knows more about theoretical physicist Paul Dirac than his classmates want to hear. At times it all becomes a bit pretentious, but in a terribly believable teenage way.

Simon Stephens’ play is very televisual and modern, with different conversations allowed to overlap, jump cutting between weeks and months, with the audience catching up as a scene develops. Between the terrific soundscape and the special effects, at times it’s like watching a live-action episode of Utopia.

It is quickly apparent that initial heroes can turn into anti-heroes. The audience is constantly asked to re-evaluate who’s good and who’s bad. Honesty is buried deep amongst the layers and layers of image. The characters match their endless outward observations with internal self-examination. Scene by scene their lives become more and more complicated as the tension in your chest builds towards the interval.

Warning: Punk Rock has the best interval cliff-hanger in the history of theatre!

At the end of each scene the lighting freezes the action, taking the colour out of the stage and reducing it to black and white snapshot. The actors reset the stage, dancing along to a snippet of a punk track that belts out over the PA. (Watch out for the spinning wall clock!)

The seventeen year old world portrayed in Punk Rock is a dark one with issues of family bereavement, self harm, mental health and depression, body image, and identity struggles alongside the normal academic pressures of sitting mock A-level exams. There is strong language, violence and scenes of bullying that make you want to shout out from your seat to intervene.

Punk Rock isn’t an easy play to sit through, and a few people seem to escape at the interval. Its mood lingers the next morning. There is little of joy to cling on to from the shocking climax.

It’s great theatre, and it’s really well acted … but be warned that the characters and their emotions will live on with you as you review and rehearse the memories of your own teenage demons.

Punk Rock plays in the Lyric until Saturday 6 September. (Student concessions available for £10.)

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