Set against the backdrop of the towering upper school library stacks, Sarah Frankcom's revisiting of Punk Rock falls almost exactly a year on from the previous staging of the production.
Simon Stephens' script beautifully crafted captures the mundanities of everyday school life, whilst lacing it with the over-brimming intellect of the grammar school pupils, just about to face their final exams. The relationship between Rupert Simonian's William and Laura Pyper's Lily bubbles with sexual tension, with the pair being shocking candid throughout their initial encounters.
The cast deliver a strong ensemble performance, with Mike Nobel's professional stage debut particularly impressive. The young company convince us that they are actually 17 year olds and not in their early twenties almost totally, but Edward Franklin's Bennet is sometimes just too calculating and too dictatorial, particularly in the moments of purest malice, to completely convice.
The descent of William, the talkative but slightly awkward schoolboy to something entirely more sick and twisted, though understated throughout, is delivered in stunning fashion by Rupert Simonian. The shocking and harrowing climax of the second act brings the entire piece crashing to an end but in the aftermath, as the smell of a cigarette fills the auditorium, we see just a glimmer more of the disturbed young man.
- Andrew Girvan
Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from September 2009 and this production's original runs at the Lyric, Hammersmith and the Royal Exchange, Manchester.
Sean Holmes' new regime as artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith gets off to a flying start with this tremendous new schoolroom drama by Simon Stephens, directed by Sarah Frankcom, in a co-production with the Royal Exchange, Manchester.
The punk rock of the title is confined to the ear-splitting blasts of protest yowls between the seven scenes – played without an interval over two hours – a sound in some contrast to the lyrical rock of Spring Awakening, to which this play is something of a companion piece, only set in Stockport, Lancashire, not turn-of-the-century Prussia.
As in the British premiere of the Wedekind-inspired musical, which had its UK premiere at this address this past February prior to its short-lived West End season, there are some astounding stage debuts, an outburst of sexual angst and simmering violence, echoes of American high school massacres and a sense of a group of teenagers at odds with the world outside.
The cast don’t have to play “young” to be utterly convincing, and it’s quite a novelty to hear a piece of such high literary voltage batted into the Lyric auditorium with such attack and confidence. On this level alone, it’s a thrilling evening.
The brilliant company is led by Tom Sturridge, son of director Charles and actress Phoebe Nicholls, as the unstable, blinking, highly intelligent William Carlisle, who falls in love with the new girl Lilly Cahill, played with devastating poise by Jessica Raine, a comparative veteran here, who has played important National Theatre roles in Stephens’ Harper Regan and David Hare’s Gethsemane.
Although the youngsters conform to certain types – the sneering bully (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), the self-contained “pretty boy” prophetic nerd (Harry McEntire, who actually was in Spring Awakening), the quiet plump pudding (Katie West) and the flirtatious Lolita (Sophie Wu) – the writing is too good to allow any scene to settle into cliché.
Frankcom’s production unravels terrifyingly in the shadow of the mock exams, the off-stage heart attack of a favourite teacher and the painful rejection of the fantasy-spinning, Hamlet-like William by the self-harming Lilly who has embarked on an affair with the muscular hearty blond classroom pin-up (Nicholas Banks).
The action is plausibly set in the study area of a musty old library designed by Paul Wills, and the cast kitted out in school blazers and maroon jumpers that reinforce the important point that this is a fee-paying grammar school where educational aspirations are bolstered with money, snobbery and false hopes.