It is very difficult as a reviewer not to build up some preconceptions about shows you are about to review. I knew very little about Punk Rock before arriving at the theatre and will admit to a certain amount of reluctance.
I need not have worried – it is an explosive piece of theatre given a very strong production.
As a play about sixth form students preparing for exams and life after school, it is inevitable that people will start to compare it to The History Boys. This would be a mistake. Bennett’s concern is with the place of education, Punk Rock is very much more about the modern pressures on teenagers.
Simon Stephen’s muscular writing creates a group of characters who are heightened versions of their real life counterparts. Their behaviour and concerns are ratcheted up a notch for the sake of the drama – and for me, it is this that gives the work a power that I was not expecting.
The usual teenage themes of self-harm, exams, family pressures, sexual exploration, bullying and many more are all there. Young people are somewhat prone to exaggerate for effect and the writing very clearly reflects this. To me it feels like life where the volume has been turned up to eleven.
The performances match the audacity of the writing – with Rupert Simonian shining in the central role as William. A character who deliberately twists reality to provoke a reaction from his classmates could appear unsympathetic but Simonian finds the humanity of this complex young man and takes the audience with him throughout.
The cast is almost too polished in their handling of the rapid fire sections of dialogue – leaving the audience breathless at the speed of the exchanges. A little less pace might actually improve the way these interactions resonate in the auditorium.
Expectations are there to be confounded and this play certainly does that. It is brave, brash, bold and, dare I say it, brilliant.