Teenage Kicks - A Punk Musical

Colin Bateman draws on his life-long love of punk in his first musical commissioned for UK City of Culture

Punk and musical theatre may seem like strange bedfellows, but – as with most popular culture – the musical has always flirted with the idea of rebellion amongst the young: from the gang warfare of New York’s Lower East side in West Side Story to the hippies of the late 1960s in Hair.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show married rock ‘n’ roll with B-movie schlock horror, and in recent years a whole genre of musical theatre – known as ‘Jukebox musicals’ – has proved extremely popular by using pop music as an integral part of theatrical shows.

Examples of this include Mamma Mia!, based on the songs of Abba, and We Will Rock You, written by Ben Elton and featuring the music of Queen, amongst many others. Another example, Sunshine on Leith – a musical based on the songs of The Proclaimers – is currently packing in audiences having made the transition from stage to screen.

Opening at the Millenium Forum in Derry~Londonderry on November 1 as part of the UK City of Culture, Teenage Kicks – A Punk Musical is a homage to the new wave of bands who shook up a stagnant music scene in Britain in the late 1970s, from Sex Pistols to Derry’s favourite sons The Undertones, bands who encouraged a fresh brand of youth rebellion that spread around the world.

'I’m from the punk rock generation. It was my music growing up,' says Colin Bateman, bestselling crime author, screenwriter, playwright and the writer of Teenage Kicks. 'I always wanted to write about it, but it took me quite a while to work out how to.'

A joint production between the Nerve Centre and Millennium Forum, Teenage Kicks tells the story of Derry~Londonderry teenager Jimmy McMurphy, who escapes Northern Ireland in 1981 by way of a student exchange programme to St Francis Xavier High School in the US state of Iowa.

The school’s principal expects to host a war-damaged refugee, but instead finds himself confronted by an exuberant, spiky-haired punk rocker intent on bringing rock ‘n’ roll anarchy to the school population. As the story progresses, we discover that Jimmy isn’t all he seems to be.

'The play starts off in Derry,' Bateman explains. 'But I didn’t want it to be a typically Northern Irish story – It felt, for me, that had been done. Being able to set it in America gave me a freedom to do what I wanted to do. I could take the Derry sensibility and sense of humour and transport them somewhere else.'

Bateman chose to set Jimmy’s adventures in Iowa, the traditional heartland of middle America. 'It’s where (the movie) Field of Dreams was set,' Bateman says. 'It sums up what I was looking for in America, somewhere very traditional. For me, if someone was singing punk rock in America, then it would be genuinely revolutionary. It would change the peoples’ lives.'

Bateman first had the idea to write about the punk scene just over a decade ago. Initially he had planned to write about Terri Hooley and his record label, but when he heard that novelist Glenn Patterson was working on a film script about Hooley, which eventually became the much-loved movie Good Vibrations, he put the idea aside. It took him another 10 years before he came up with the idea of Teenage Kicks.

'The last thing I want is just old punks to come and see it. I don't want it to just appeal to a lot of middle-aged, overweight men who remember the music fondly,' says Bateman. 'It’s important that there’s a story that works, that appeals to all ages.

'I hope they will find it attractive and interesting and care what happens. It’s about teenagers, it’s about rebellion. These are things which I associate with punk rock from its beginnings in rock ‘n’ roll right up to the current era. I think it’s something that will have universal appeal.'

With a cast of up to 15 onstage, and featuring the songs of The Undertones, Buzzcocks, The Stranglers, The Only Ones and many more, the musical promises to be much more than Footloose revisited with better music. But what of those who would say that a punk musical is almost a contradiction in terms?

'There’s no doubt some people will say that,' Bateman admits. 'I don’t think you should feel confined, though. Take The Clash. There were people who would’ve loved The Clash never to have changed their style, kept the same sound they had on their first album. But they moved on, they spread their wings, and went on to produce one of the best albums ever made in London Calling.'

Bateman, born in Newtownards in 1962 and based in Bangor, was fortunate to enter his teenage years just as the first distorted notes of punk were being heard across the Atlantic Ocean.

'I was lucky because I was a classmate and friend of Gavin Martin, who produced the punk fanzine Alternative Ulster. Gavin was one of my best friends and lived around the corner. So he would always be coming into school and saying. "Have you heard this band? Have you heard that band?" He introduced me to a lot of American punk rock like The Ramones and Richard Hell before British punk rock started and Sex Pistols came along.

'So I had an education in very early punk. I was really involved in it. They say all you need is three chords and you can form your own band. Unfortunately, I didn’t even have one chord, I’d no musical ability whatsoever. But punk was more an attitude than anything. If you couldn’t play music you brought that attitude to other things.'

Bateman began his career as a journalist at age 16, working for the County Down Spectator as a 'cub' reporter. He wrote about the punk bands coming out of Northern Ireland including The Undertones, The Outcasts and Stiff Little Fingers. He attended many of the gigs in Belfast and beyond, and was one of the many stage invaders at the Good Vibrations benefit gig in the Ulster Hall, which is featured in the climax to Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn's film.

His Betty Trask Award-winning debut novel Divorcing Jack was the first to feature the punk rock loving journalist Dan Starkey, and music has been a constant love throughout his life. Still in the midst of rehearsals for Teenage Kicks, Bateman is enjoying the process of working with the cast as well as director Des Kennedy, whose previous work includes Once -- The Musical and Vernon God Little.

'There’s been quite a lot of rewriting, which isn’t very punk rock, but that’s the exciting part of it all,' Bateman says. 'Seeing how people interpret what you say, seeing what works, seeing it all come together. It’s been fantastic.'

Teenage Kicks – A Punk Musical runs at the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry from November 1 – 9.