Lyric Hammersmith, London W6

Opened 8 September, 2009


Back in March, I saw a fine revival of Simon Stephens’ 2001 play about troubled, inarticulate teenagers, Herons, at the National Student Drama Festival. It is gratifying to see that its director Clive Judd has been given the assistant directing seat on Sarah Frankcom’s production of Stephens’ 2009 play about troubled, inarticulate teenagers, Punk Rock. This is not to imply that he is going over old ground: the earlier play is set among East London’s working (or non-working) class, whereas this one takes place in a Stockport grammar school. Indeed, it is significant that such a play about a British Columbine is set not only in greater Manchester (just, coincidentally, as the trial begins of two boys who planned such an event in the area) but in a public school in the British rather than the American sense.
Such adolescent explosions, Stephens argues, are nothing to do with any particular kind of deprivation, social or otherwise. In the final scene, protagonist William goes through a litany of questions: did he do it because of family pressures, or the girl he fancied, or the music he listened to (the play’s title is a blatant misdirection), or the Internet, or... or...? In each case, no. We watch a knot of half a dozen teens in the deserted sixth-form library following the usual dynamics of peer pressure and power games, quite often unpleasant but only pathologically so in the case of the suavely vicious Bennett (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). What becomes apparent is that each has a desperate coping mechanism: it may be turned inwards as with Cissy’s anorexia or cool, manipulative newcomer Lilly inflicting burns on herself, it may be intellectual nihilism as with the geeky Chadwick, or it may be Bennett’s sadism... but once any such strategy is disabled, once active conduct becomes impossible and/or fantasy is devalued even in one’s own eyes, then, as with the edgy, socially maladroit William, the string snaps.
As so often with Stephens, a bleak series of narrative events contrives somehow to nurture a kernel of affirmation for those of us watching. As Lilly (the ambiguously compelling Jessica Raine) says in an author’s-message moment, "99% of the young people in this country do a really good job of the actual work of being alive." The casting also shows a commitment to authentic youthful experience: four of the central six actors, including an excellent Tom Sturridge as William, are making their professional debuts here.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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