This riveting new work confirms Simon Stephens as one of the most important and exciting British playwrights working today. The premise of “Punk Rock” could be glibly summed up as “The History Boys” meets Columbine, but this hardly does service to the compassion, insight — and theatrical panache — of Stephens’ approach. What initially feels like an exploration of the everyday horrors of contemporary adolescence slowly reveals itself as a story of exceptional violence. The writer’s perfectly calibrated setup leads auds to some of the biggest, most complex questions of our times: how do these things happen, and what can be done?
Play is set in a fee-paying (what the American system would call private) secondary school in Stockport, outside Manchester (a town where Stephens briefly worked as a teacher). The tall, dark wood book stacks of Paul Wills’ impressive set immediately cue us that this is a world of privilege: most American universities would wish for a library this stately. But the deafening, distorted blast of rock (Big Black, Sonic Youth, White Stripes) that opens every scene also hints that things are askew.
We meet the intense but likeable William (Tom Sturridge) as he greets pretty new girl Lilly (Jessica Raine), who’s just moved from Cambridge, where the people were “rude, horrible pigs.” Such negative feeling initially seems like normal teenage grandstanding, but we soon learn that Lilly — and practically every one of her classmates — is carrying around some serious baggage.
Lilly self-harms; William lies about his family’s past; handsome Bennett (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) is a horrendous bully, which his girlfriend Cissy (Sophie Wu) enables; uber-nerdy Chadwick is obsessed with anti-matter; and sweet Tanya (Katie) is the butt of much of Bennett’s abuse. Only handsome, lacrosse-playing Nicholas (Nicholas Banks) seems relatively undamaged, making him stand out all the more.
It’s difficult to tell if it was Sarah Franksom’s directorial choice or opening-night nerves, but there was a heightened, self-conscious tone to the first scenes. This served to over-emphasize the fact that these kids are always in a performative mode, even if it did aid the delivery of some very funny badinage (“Holy fucking moly on a horse, it’s Kanye West,” snarks Bennett, as Chadwick appears in an unlikely lime-green puffa jacket). As the action went on, the superb (and superbly cast) company eased into a style of intense and affecting naturalism.
One of Stephens’ authorial trademarks is the creation of compelling action that paradoxically lacks traditional forward plot drive: all that happens in the bulk of the play are the everyday, mundane events of student life — studying, flirting, angsting, gossiping. But subtly and inexorably, a sense of menace builds, and even auds knowing that the action is heading towards a violent denouement are drawn into the central mystery: who’s going to blow?
Subtle red herrings abound, but as soon as the penny drops (the character in question starts claiming to predict the future and warns another, “Tomorrow. Don’t come into school”) everything that’s already taken place takes on new significance. The climactic scene plays out like a live-action nightmare (save only for the actual violence, which comes across as not quite credible enough).
A lesser writer would have left things at that, but a final scene allows Stephens to consolidate the questions he’s asking: he adds further suggestion that the shooter was mentally ill or delusional, but then has the character declare quite cogently: “I did it because I could. I did it because it felt fucking great.” This echoes another character’s rationale for a minor random act of cruelty committed earlier in the play, thus underlining the state of free-floating, amoral lawlessness which seems to be the characters’ status quo.
What is it about contemporary society that makes young people not only behave horribly to each other, but also be driven to violence with increasing frequency? It’s a testament to Stephens’ skill — and the young cast’s impeccable performances — that we are left caring deeply about these characters and feeling scarred by their fates at the same time as we are struck by the larger problems they represent.
The production plays a too-brief three weeks at the Lyric Hammersmith before a month-long stint in Manchester; its quality merits a much longer life in London, on U.K. tour, or beyond.