Rhys Dunlop in Punk Rock

The Lir graduate on exciting debut role in acclaimed production at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast

For any young actor starting out in their professional career, there are few better ways to make one's debut than appearing in an acclaimed production at a famous venue. Treading the boards is often viewed as the truest method of honing the acting craft and for Belfast’s Rhys Dunlop, he will grasp that chance next week.

Dunlop recently graduated from The Lir, Ireland’s National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College Dublin, and now faces his first big test in the world away from the slightly cosseted environs of drama school. He is set to star in the Lyric Theatre’s production of Punk Rock, English playwright Simon Stephens’s searing study of dysfunctional middle-class youth in an age of austerity and the dwindling of the university myth.

Those three years in Dublin have already proved invaluable. As far as Dunlop is concerned the training eased his move into something more challenging. ‘The most exciting theatre makers in the country are all working in The Lir,’ he says. ‘We get that professional experience, which is amazing. It made the transition a little bit easier. It wasn’t as much of a shock to the system.’

Beyond the simple fact that taking up a place in Punk Rock’s youthful ensemble cast represented valuable work, the material itself attracted Dunlop from the moment he read it. ‘Simon Stephens’s writing is just incredible,’ he says, pointing to the edginess of the writer’s style. ‘There’s something a little bit bold and risky about it, about all of the characters.’

The play is not automatically anchored in its original Stockport setting, where a small group of grammar school kids run the gauntlet of stress and parental pressure stemming from their approaching A-levels. However, perhaps because of its power, or even the particularly British essence, all iterations since it first opened in 2009 have retained that location, unwilling to interfere with Stephens’s powerfully affecting narrative.

In Dunlop’s estimation, the juxtaposition of its content and comfortably familiar surroundings makes Punk Rock so startling.

‘What’s shocking about it is how real it is. I think that’s what scares people because we don’t like to be shocked by reality. We like to think we know what’s going on. So, when you recognise somewhere that is supposed to be as safe as a school and you are presented with the bullying, and other stuff, that goes on and you have to reflect upon it… that’s what has been so exciting through rehearsals for us. It’s so real, it’s scary.’

Dunlop is a proud former pupil of St. Malachy’s College in north Belfast but can draw upon a certain level of understanding in his preparations. ‘Every school has its dark side,’ he says. Indeed, it is not without significance that Stephens places his tale within the specific confines of a relatively privileged fee-paying grammar school.

These centres of education, founded on academic achievement, promote a need to keep up with the pack, to maintain the high standards expected. ‘Schools put pressure on kids to do well,’ says Dunlop, ‘but it’s the pressure we put on ourselves. Perhaps that’s a result of the pressures inherent to the institution.’ There is a natural scope, therefore, for drama in an entity recognised by us all. ‘School is an interesting environment and one that nearly everyone will relate to,’ he suggests.

Dunlop portrays William Carlisle, an outsider whose influence grows as the plot hurtles towards its shattering climax. ‘He’s fascinating. But they all are. I think any character in a Simon Stephens play is a gift for an actor.’ The Glengormley native admits that he is, at present, only ‘beginning to scratch the surface’ of William but expects, and hopes, to know him better as he delves deeper and fully inhabits Stephens’s creation.

That evolution, he believes, will only satisfy the paying public. ‘You always strive to achieve perfection and never do. That’s the beauty of what acting is, especially theatre acting. It’s live every night and I hope we have great audiences every night. Each time they see it, it’s different and each time you do it, it’s different. If it was the same then it would be too banal.’

Regardless of the role, Dunlop is simply thankful to have landed in an enviable position at so early a stage. ‘There’s such a supportive energy in this building,’ he says of both the Lyric and the instant project. ‘It’s really encouraging and really exciting. There was genuine potential created in the room on the day of the initial reading and I’d never felt that before.’

Such potential has morphed into something solid in the weeks since, lending credence to his belief that the show will thrill and jolt in equal measures. ‘I’m working in an incredible theatre with an incredible level of prestige and an incredible character and director [Selina Cartmell]. And, of course, the cast is amazing too.’

Not bad at all for a first gig.

Punk Rock runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, from August 10 to September 6.