Friday, 15 August 2014


Belfast's Lyric Theatre stages an unpredictable mosaic of a play, an archetypal reflection of the titular music

Nothing in the trailers, the title or even most of the show itself can really prepare you for what to expect from Simon Stephens' Punk Rock. Directed by Selina Cartmell, the production, set in a school in Stephens' native Stockport, is framed not as a predictable chronicle of the titular music but more as a series of discussions amongst obviously too-cool-for-school children, punctuated by thunderous musical interludes. It is less about the characters finding themselves and more about the characters being themselves, remarkably avoiding most obnoxious pitfalls to become a true eye-opener for its audience.

Punk Rock is, in many ways, The Stockport Breakfast Club; John Hughes' classic filtered through a undetained Grunge Hill lens into something edgier, more fractured and more troubling. Early exchanges are spunky, relatable and full of bite, the genuine intelligence and obviously nerdy appearance of apparently likeable William (Rhys Dunlop) unconvincingly masking his clear attempts to pull the moves on new girl Lilly (Lauren Coe). While Lilly, a typical fish out of water from Cambridge, seems happy to pal and play along with him, she looks a tough nut to crack. Amongst the five other adolescents – bully Bennett (Ian Toner), cynical Cissy (Aisha Fabienne Ross), sporty Nicholas (Jonah Hauer-King), idealistic Tanya (Laura Smithers) and extremely geeky Chadwick (Rory Corcoran) – Lilly seems equally at ease, her presence offering a good opportunity for everyone else to forget about their upcoming mock exams.

Punk Rock's intentionally muddled narrative is given passion and spirit by a truly excellent cast, six of whom (Dunlop, Coe, Ross, Hauer-King, Smithers and Corcoran) are making their professional stage debuts. Admirably, Stephens and Cartmell give their "class" plenty of room to be expressive; the tantalisingly kinetic opening dialogue is by no means a predictor of the haphazardly fascinating tone of the play.

The world of this Stockport school is one of swearing, abuse, hatred and even violence, laden with brief emotional releases and clouded by mistrust. For example, Bennett's bullying, primarily of Chadwick, masks sensitive cowardice, brought to the forefront when little sister Lucy asks him to come home. Sensible Lilly never feels like who she claims to be, her "proper" politeness and kind-heartedness disguising self-harm and self-hatred. Understandable though it is that she rebuffs William's advances, when she claims she "loves" Nicholas, we never really believe her.

Only the impossibly clever Chadwick feels wholly honest with himself. Most revelatory are his creepily nonchalant expressions, particularly during a “monologue of doom” about the human race. You don't see Chadwick as you want to see him or how he wants you to see him; you see him as he is. And you suspect the other characters envy him for it.

What could be a possible hindrance – the lack of an obvious heart in central character William – is turned into a strength by actors Rhys Dunlop and Lauren Coe. In what amounts to a minor tour de force, Dunlop transforms a series of tics and traits into a frantic soul given a conscience by Coe's watchful Lilly. She might be there for him reluctantly, but one senses that she needs to be there; her refusal of William's romantic gesture, combined with his inability to accept that she does not love him, will ensure that the play takes a macabre turn for the ticking time bomb that is William and everyone around him.

The shocking and bafflingly unreal conclusion tempts one to raise the theory that the whole play may well have been happening inside William's head. But it is more logical to assume that Punk Rock totals up to the desperate, doomed, depressed rantings of a boy who wants to "choose life" but can't, or won't, therefore he doesn't. A potentially endearing central character has become a figure of outright madness in a deranged denouement that seems far, far away from any good vibrations or teenage kicks.

But then, one realises that Punk Rock really has been faithful to the titular music: it is a depiction of the archetypal moods that reflect the basis on which punk was founded. One sees the characters as they are intended to be seen: Lilly, the heart; Bennett, the bravado; Lucy, the innocence; Nicholas, the jock; Chadwick, the brains; Tanya, the optimism; Cissy, the apathy, and William, the crazed, confused soul. As a story, Punk Rock is as confusing and frustrating as the adolescence it depicts; as a metaphor, it is quite spectacular, an affecting emotional mosaic.

Punk Rock runs in Belfast's Lyric Theatre until Saturday September 6 2014.