Teen angst on overdrive [by James Wenley]
Pity the British teenager. There’s something about the British school system that has seen it spawn more than its fair share of films, television and plays eviscerating the subject. Alan Bennett’s thoughtful The History Boys, which Punk Rock has been compared to, took a fairly noble approach to student’s studying their final exam. Punk Rock by Simon Stephens is something else entirely. While presenting as a familiar story of a group of grammar school sixth formers studying for their A levels, it explodes into a punishing indictment on the horrors of high school and the teenage wasteland.
School uniforms don’t stop Punk Rock’s characters from expressing their identities – it’s all how you wear your blazer. Opening loud to a suitably raucous punk song, a recognisable assortment of archetypes parade around the stage. There’s the tightly buttoned nerd, the suggestive hottie, the sloppily dressed bully, and the guy so cool he gets away with wearing a non-regulation jacket. Within seconds, the nerd’s pants have been pulled down and carted offstage. Ah, so that’s how it’s going to be.
Our way into the story is Lily Cahill (Sarah Graham) a new student to the school. William Carlisle (Nathan Mudge), a sensitive dreamer prone to exaggeration, takes an early shine to her. She meets the rest of the small group of six formers who hang out in the little visited upper library – the obnoxious Bennett (Jordan Mooney) who always has girlfriend Cissy (Morgan Albrecht) in tow, outwardly confident Nicholas Chatman (George Mason) with designs on the teachers, people pleaser Tanya (Elizabeth McMenamin) and knowledge-hoarder Chadwick Meade (Ryan Dulieu) who is on the very bottom of the school group hierarchy. Their early scenes create an impression of an articulate but dysfunctional group of teens finding their way through school, mock exams, and social situations. William opens up to Lily, but she refuses his offer to go out. It moves well, but it feels like we’ve seen this before.
Events start to get interesting when Lily’s character is complicated with a no so nice side of her character, and doubt is cast on audience hero William’s own veracity. The play begins then to side step into some deeper territory – bratty Bennett turns into a full tyrant, getting away with increasingly sadistic power plays, particularly at the expense of Chadwick, due to the group’s inaction. Chadwick is given a darkly moving nihilistic speech about the point of it all, taking in big themes like anti-matter, alternative universes and the rot of human nature. As a narrative the play constantly shifts identity, picking up its focus on one character for a time, then moving on to the next. It sets up, and then undercuts our expectations, and you’re never quite sure where it’s going or feeling like you’ve got a hold on it.
Without giving away too much, the climax is heart-pounding, powerful and tragic, a tour de-force of theatre and being in the same room as characters you care about. It actually made me feel really physically sick. Reviewing the cause and effect through the play, it’s an outcome you can understand and follow, but not necessarily inevitable – it takes a very specific leap by a character to do what they do. A following coda slowly lowers the visceral tension of the climax, with a final impression of ambivalence. Not everything is tied up either, leaving much to speculate upon.
The teenage years are isolated, small problems become large without wider perspective. The characters are confined to the library room, John Parker’s panel windows sloping down inwards over them, suggestive of their own interior worlds pushing down upon them. Crushing them. Brad Gledhill’ dynamic lights LED lights, coupled with the punk playlist, unleash powerful bursts of angst and energy.
Punk Rock marks a very exciting development for Outfit Theatre Company, who had their origins in as a graduating Unitec year. While many are involved behind the scenes, only two original ensemble members – Sarah Graham and Devlin Bishop – act in the play, the rest are the pick of a new generation of talents who have been making their mark, and it’s really rewarding seeing them be given the opportunity to tackle the demands of the play. It asks them to go to some very dark places as actors, and they handle it with maturity and depth. All ensemble create an indelible impression with their characters, particular mention to Nathan Mudge and Ryan Dulieu who are extraordinarily affecting.
Director Benjamin Henson is new to the Outfit too, confidently riding the changing mood and dynamics. With Outfit continuing to choose visceral material, and fostering new talent alongside their capable ensemble, they are a force to be reckoned with.
Punk Rock all up, is frightening; a dark treatise on the way human beings can treat other human beings. It’s difficult to disagree with Chadwick – everything we do turns out bad in the end. Except this play, a hard-hitting and absorbing theatre experience.
Punk Rock is presented by Outfit Theatre Company and plays at The Basement until April 7th. More details see Basement Theatre.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Joanna Page.