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Punk Rock
Published on Wednesday, 11 July 2012

ImageArts Centre Studio, Theatre
5-6, 8 Jul, 6:30pm-7:30pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

It’s a tricky review to write, this one; firstly because it’s a very young cast, with understandably varying skills, and secondly because my beef is with the script far more than it is with the actors.  But my job’s to review the whole experience, and I fear the structural oddities of Simon Stephens’ plot – widely noted but universally forgiven on its professional debut in London – overpowered this ambitious production.  Nonetheless, some striking individual performances and well-choreographed ensemble work demonstrate the group’s future potential.

This is a play about disaffected youth, but – in a riposte to those who think troubled teenagers live only on council estates – Stephens’ script is set in a posh Stockport grammar school.  And there’s the first curiosity: the play’s called Punk Rock, but the upper-crust opening scenes sound more like they’re drawn from Oscar Wilde.  Needless to say, the silver-spoon upbringing hides an undertow of bullying and rejected romance… and the anxious, gawky William, who cleverly spends the whole play hiding behind his tousled hair, proves the lightning-rod for emotions running far beyond his control.

If I can give just one piece of advice to these budding actors, it’s to worry less about speaking the lines written on the page and think more about what the characters are really trying to say.  The conflicts, in particular, felt too obviously scripted, and the casual childhood cruelty that’s so central to the storyline was never quite conveyed.  In truth, it’s when the actors were standing out of the spotlight that I found the characterisation most compelling; the toffish Chadwick, for example, effects the perfect air of secretly-insecure disdain, even down to the supercilious way he twiddles his thumbs.

All of the cast get a chance to show those skills, because when they’re not in a scene, they sit at the back of the stage.  Reading, chatting, or doing their homework, they’re always active but never a distraction.  It’s a clever piece of direction to keep them visible all the time, and the play’s most chilling moment came when a nagging thought pushed itself to the front of my mind – and I realised that suddenly, they’d all begun sitting perfectly still.

Even long before that point, it’s really not hard to guess that something very shocking will eventually occur.  But it’s here, I’m afraid, that the challenging script does this young cast no service at all; with little in the dialogue to set us up for the deadly twist, it relies on an air of creeping menace which, understandably, proved difficult to achieve.  Without it, the sudden change of mood felt like a screeching handbrake turn – and the too-awful-to-contemplate became simply too hard to believe.

What a shame.  But at its best, both script and cast did deliver insights – into a pressure-cooker world of privilege, where a B in English Literature could ruin a whole young life.  Such everyday concerns surely offer drama enough, and I feel this group needed a less alienating script to really rock and roll.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Buxton 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.