Simon Stephens' new play Punk Rock has received rave reviews in London and although it is slightly uneven in tone, you can see why. It focuses on a group of disaffected teens as they go through their Groundhog Day, that is school. But, the twist here is that they are middle class, bright pupils with everything ahead of them. Or have they?
Like Alan Bennett's History Boys, these characters have long monologues and speak in a way that makes them sound like characters in a play, as opposed to real people. But, unlike Bennett's Brief Encounter loving students, the world they inhabit is not all tea and elevenses.
There are several things which lift this character study above the norm; a fantastic lead performance, a familiar setting and Pete Rice's stunning sound effects. Tom Sturridge is incredibly endearing as shy boy William Carlisle, whose intelligence and quirky way with others, makes you warm to him instantly. The irony is that, even as his actions take a shocking turn, the other characters are so unlikable that you almost forgive him. This is down to his tremendous performance which proves he really is one to watch.
Jessica Raine does her best with new girl Lilly Cahill but the character is mainly a device to introduce us to the school, which leaves her with very little substance to work with. Henry LIoyd-Hughes filters comedian Jimmy Carr through his turn, which makes bully boy Bennett less menacing than he should be. But Sophie Wu's young cynic, Cissy is much more credible as his girlfriend/sidekick.
Set in Stockport, the play does have plenty of references to the likes of the Arndale and Heaton Moor, driving Stephens dynamic dialogue home for a local audience, offering them food-for-thought via the familiarity.
The second half of the play is not as successful or as believable as the first and the protracted final scene adds nothing in terms of tension or character development. At a running time of one hour and 50 minutes with no interval; some cutting is required to leave audiences gasping.
But, there is no denying that due to some tight direction by Sarah Frankcom and a terrific Tom Sturridge, Punk Rock still packs a mighty punch.