A series of brilliant stage debuts transport Lyric Theatre audiences into the teenage heart of darkness
The title is misleading, but nonetheless apt. Simon Stephen’s play, directed confidently by Selina Cartmell for the Lyric Theatre's Danske Bank Stage (and what a beautifully appointed stage it is – Lyric productions are always well tailored, but Monica Frawley’s classroom is a particularly handsome and malleable one) has little to do with the titular musical genre, and everything to do with that fulminating hotbed of hormonal angst: teenage years.
This crucible of feeling and experimentation is the crux of the play: witness William’s (Rhys Dunlop) glacial moves on new girl Lilly (Lauren Coe), only to have her stolen away from him effortlessly by the bovine Nicholas (Jonah Hauer-King) in a manner as perplexing to him as it is obvious to us.
Or witness self proclaimed 'best person in this town, and funniest', Bennett, as he flexes his muscles, seeing how far he can go, picking on the obvious victims first before slowly moving up the pecking order.
The play sees new girl and token Southerner, Lilly, arriving at a Stockport grammar school and meeting William. He is genial, bright and occasionally slightly odd. (He claims to be working for the government.)
She is reserved, cool, but assured: well used to being ferried from pillar to post and to making and breaking allegiances quickly. They form a bond easily. That there is a difference of opinion on what that bond could mean proves to be the pivot on which the play rests.
The rest of the cast enter and display their thumbnail characterisation: Bennett the joker; Nicholas the jock; Cissy (Aisha Fabienne Ross) the spoilt brat; Chadwick (Rory Corcoran) the misfit genius; and Tanya, slightly less clever than the rest, slightly less confident.
So far, so Hollyoaks, but as the story twists about – as the betrayals stack up and the abuse strays from the verbal into actual physical harm, when it’s no longer 'banter' or a 'bit of a laugh' – that’s when the play shows its steel, its heart of darkness.
The young actors, most of whom are making their professional stage debuts, are brilliant throughout, whether negotiating the baby steps of a new romance or the vividly energetic choreographed breaks, where Mudhoney is played at ear-shredding volume (a good thing) and they fling chairs about, ready for the next scene. They remain committed and believable, their accents spot on. These are some exceptional debuts.
The characterisation occasionally feels spotty. It is no fault of the actors that they are called upon to breathe life into characters who are, at times, frustratingly underwritten: Lilly (referred to as 'Lily Allen' throughout in a way that feels oddly dated, despite the Southern accent and bob) self harms, but this is never really developed.
That Chadwick is really clever seems to immediately place him on the autism spectrum as sort of short-hand. His interaction with the others seems cagey and forced, as he shuffles about apologising for his existence.
There is nothing wrong with this, of course, it just seems a little too neat, a touch obvious, whereas, the fact that Tanya is a nice, dim girl with body issues (beautifully played by Laura Smithers) is essential to the play’s most shocking moment.
Bennett, testing his power and seeing exactly what he can get away with, spits in her face and, when challenged, declares he did it 'because he wanted to do it'. It’s a moment that hangs in the air, a moment where the bullying becomes nakedly cruel.
Chadwick, with his awkwardness, his unwillingness to engage, seems to exist solely to be bullied and there is something cruel and clever in that: we almost collude in Bennett’s bullying of the socially awkward swot. We expect it. But when he turns on bubbly, likeable Tanya – practically one of us – it is a shocking moment and we feel it with a force.
Despite the beautifully staged Grand Guignol finale (elegant and bloody, a John Woo ballet) it is in these quieter moments of casual evil that we, the audience, are implicated. As well as feeding the inevitable ending, it places us in the middle of this peculiar environment, the weirdness of school, that one size fits all establishment that is so hard to escape alive.
Punk Rock is a bravura production, buoyed up by sturdy and imaginative direction and a hungry, youthful and talented cast. It is a thoughtful confection of teenage kicks to the head and neck.
Punk Rock runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until September 6.