With the public perception of the young; with their selfishness and their libidos and their ‘problems’, laying in the gutter having been dumped there by the likes of ‘Skins’, ‘Misfits’ and the Daily Mail, Simon Stephens’ ‘Punk Rock’ may be approached as another notch on a very judgemental bedpost. Indeed; selfishness and sexuality and seediness are what motivates the sixth formers of the piece. A meek, socially awkward kid, William (Jake Walton), is in love with the new girl, Lily (Fia Spiropolous), who humours him to his face and belittles him mercilessly behind his back to her more muscular, less interesting LAD (capitals) of a boyfriend, Nicholas (Ollie Cumins). Meanwhile, the alpha male, Bennett (Ross McAffrey), slaps Chadwick (Peter Pearson) the nerd about with his superior dong and sleeps with Cissy (Floss Edward), his lady, of the ‘wotevs’ variety.
Christ on a two-stroke; what a cast, what a catharsis, what a performance! Lancaster University Theatre Group’s production of ‘Punk Rock’, under the ever precise and intelligent direction of Joshua Coates, made sure that the humanity behind the piece didn’t go unnoticed. ‘Punk Rock’ is not a youth drama, it’s a drama in which the participants happen to be youths. Yes, the fairly standard love affair = revenge plot could subject itself to anybody, but what a surprise it must be to casual viewers to find that youngsters are as fleshy and bloody as the rest of us.
It’s not unreasonable to concede that a cast of students who themselves are not far removed from the University application process had an easy job in delivering conviction behind their collective dilemma (exams) and leaving it at that, but this ensemble paid just as much attention to their individual motivations, which made for gatling-gun quick dialogue and a strong sense of fluency and reason in their often abhorrent actions.
Jake Walton, as William, who you might call the proantagonist of the piece, didn’t step up to the plate, he somersaulted, and gave a thousand-words-a-second William whose school yearbook caption would read ‘most likely to go on a killing spree’ (which is only fitting). He is held tenderly and patiently by Fia Spiropolous, making the two-facedness of her character all the more conducive to our sympathy for William. In a stand-out LUTG début, Ross McCaffrey’s performance as Bennett the bully fulfilled what is perhaps ‘Punk Rock’s most vital remit – yes, he is thoroughly unpleasant, but each verbal tirade is released with such obvious self-awareness, yet carried on with such bloody-mindedness that you start to believe Bennett is merely living up to the shallow expectations of his equally shallow counterparts. Peter Pearson (who you may remember as Skinlad in ‘Road’ last year) has expanded on his knack for the downtrodden, and gave to a thoroughly crushed Chadwick convincing intelligence behind the meekness. And the most profound spiel in the play, in which Chadwick counteracts the bullying he suffers with a bigger picture of political and economic collapse, was such a sharp snap from his usual reservedness as to be yet another display of Pearson’s distinct versatility as a performer.
The story culminates in a gun-hoe massacre of the least sympathetic characters, and things dawn – yes, we all wanted this to happen, particularly to Bennett. But when it does happen, it’s so horrifying to see the caricatures of ‘bully’, ‘chav’, and ‘lad’ replaced with a shared feeling of unbridled terror that we realise these are human beings, merely shielding themselves with their conformist flaws. The success of this aspect is to be entirely attributed to a considerate cast, who had the ability to be subtle and stay subtle when they weren’t in focus – an honourable willingness to take it in turns to shine theatrically.
The space offered by DT3 was used simply and effectively for the first time this term – a plain wash of lighting, some tables and a couple of bookshelves and bang, done. We are in a claustrophobic library, we can see why its inhabitants want to escape and why they hate one another. The first act ran for almost an hour, but the cast had everyone in attendance so firmly by the balls that it barely felt like a minute. I said earlier that ‘Punk Rock’ is not another notch on a very judgemental bedpost, but it is a notch on LUTG’s bedpost. Specifically, the one that tallies its absolute triumphs.