Like an open wound that is scratched and pressed in front of you, some moments of Punk Rock are unbearable to be put through and watch. The continual intensity, which simmers below the pithy surface of Simon Stephens’ new play, the sexual games, status plays and open bursts of bullying aggression, all add to a feeling of the inherent pressure which permeates the world of today’s young people and calls uncomfortably to memories of our own youth. But when this ideas-led piece takes a turn into the melodramatic and the potential for violence explodes into actuality, it concludes in annoyingly clichéd climaxes which seriously disappoint.
Focussing on the experiences of a group of middle class students, the kids in Punk Rock are all academically high achievers. Wanting to highlight that violence is not only due to race or class, Stephens’ kids do not disrupt classrooms or skip school, instead they reveal their inner desperation to kick out at a controlling world order through everything from their cruelty to their cold indifference and hideously passive non action. Firing personal attacks encased in punchy bullet like sentences they circle one another like warriors in a gladiator pit, pushing and poking to test for weak spots, waiting for someone to explode.
All of this makes for exhausting but important viewing that will take you to raw emotional places of empathy which are hugely interesting and seem painfully necessary. As each scene progresses however this unbearable compression begins to dissolve into a safe and predictable monotony as Stephens’ intellectual exploration into an inherent societal violence dulls into a simplified look at a troubled youth’s tragic story.
Sarah Frankcom’s staging is basic but she extends the hyper focussed language with microscopically detailed performances that ramp up the sizzling potential for destruction into an electric collective of characters who are engaging and seductive. The young cast move with the primitive grace of animals and whether they are predators or prey each has a litheness and sense of potential which bubbles out of them creating the appearance of miniature powerhouses. The energy they release is tangible and it remains taut throughout; although it would perhaps have been more interesting of Frankcom to play with this a little and bring variance, and a little calm, to what is essentially a one levelled bombardment on the senses.
The musky library setting clashes nicely with the oppressive industrial sound and songs which begin this piece and pulse throughout it like a dull ache, giving the whole thing a sense of genteel distortion. But whilst the music mirrors the violent sense of destruction which permeates this production, like everything else in this play it becomes unfocused, unable to define a specific area or place. In the same way Stephens’ play does not land solidly enough on what it is saying or who it is saying it to. Is this an ideological piece or a melodramatic tragedy? It can’t seem to make up its mind.
The beginning of Punk Rock is frustratingly full of potential only for it to lose its way, shift into simplistic conclusions and end in mediocrity. Stephens is right, the British do treat their children childishly; it is just a shame that his initial perceptive probing should translate into an immature and over the top story which instead of dealing with this issue, simplifies it down into a stereotypical theatrical plot, that more than anything, perpetuates it.
Written for The Public Reviews