The hopelessly unruly title of Mike Packer’s new play, tHe dYsFUnCKshOnalZ, is a comic indication of its satirical blast against punk rock in general and the Sex Pistols in particular. The sight of Johnny Rotten ranting away on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! three years ago summed it all up, really. And, sure enough, Billy Abortion (Rupert Procter), the Rotten figure in Packer’s play, undermines plans for a reunion tour by declaring that he’s off to Australia to join the other publicity-seekers in the jungle.
Everything in Tamara Harvey’s hugely enjoyable production corresponds to the punk period of drug-fuelled stroppiness, self-immolation and stabbings, ripped leather and stupid haircuts. The music, composed by Mia Soteriou and performed live by a talented cast, has a driving vigour and rude appeal that suggests something genuinely artistic was in the air, too.
The punks are all middle-aged now, and Ralph Brown’s rugged Mark Faeces (he’s had a second career with a band called the Turds), the lead guitarist, has tracked Billy down to a supermarket, where he’s stacking shelves, with news of the reunion gig. In the first place, this involves recycling one of the band’s big hits for a credit card commercial. When this escalates into joining “a rose-tinted bandwagon” for cuddly punks, and a stage costume issue of white turtle necks in New York, Billy’s fury boils over into full-on defiance and disaffection.
No one has forced any of them to do anything, so the intensity of Billy’s predicament can only be absurdly funny, and the drama can only exist in the detail of the comedy and the miraculous realism of the staging. At one point, a standing wall in Lucy Osborne’s design slams to the ground and reveals the band in full cry bathed in a cocoon of lights and dry ice.
Louise Gash, the bass guitarist, is struggling with cancer and has lost a child, but is still projected with an almost dream-like serenity by Julia Ford. Marc is the one who keeps the show on the road, impervious to any niceties of selling out, while Louise and John Smith, the stuttering, permanently stoned drummer played to hilarious perfection by Pearce Quigley, fall in behind.
In many ways this is the classic Bush play, and certainly one of the best I’ve seen about the music industry, let alone the punk phenomenon. And yes, the spew and spittle of Billy’s rage, very well done by Rupert Procter, does convince you of its authenticity and assumes the vitriolic power of a messed-up, alternative Jimmy Porter of punk.