Punk Rock is the third Simon Stephens play I've seen, and like Pornography the title refers to the tone of the piece rather than being a literal description of the subject matter. It's on at the Lyric Hammersmith, which earlier this year premiered Spring Awakening, and this shares the theme of teenagers under pressure (as well as one shared cast member.) It's easily the best of the three plays I've seen by Stephens, and is well-cast with, once again, actors some of whom are making their professional debuts.
Stephens' concern is with the negative way in which all young people are viewed in the UK, regardless of whether they've actually done anything wrong; and with the pressure that's put on them to make something of themselves straight away. Here this is framed in a school environment, in the runup to the mock A'Levels. Stephens deliberately sets it in a private school to avoid the impression that he's commenting on class matters; in fact the set is of a grand old library that most of the students avoid since the newer library has internet access, so a small group of sixth-formers use it as a sort of common room. The play starts off very funny, with some snappy dialogue and a lot of subtle glances that speak volumes. It quickly gets darker though, firstly as Bennett (Henry Lloyd-Hughes, the bully from The Inbetweeners) also playing a bully here but one repressing the gay feelings that pretty much everyone has figured out he has, takes out his aggression on Chadwick (Harry McEntire, the Spring Awakening alumnus) the socially inept boy genius, and "fat" Tanya (Katie West.) By the play's climax things have taken an even more violent turn.
The publicity and programme don't make much attempt to hide what kind of ending we're in for, which may be because Stephens partly structures this like a mystery - at first any one of the kids might be the one to snap, Bennett or one of his victims; his downtrodden girlfriend Cissy (Sophie Wu;) compulsive liar William (Tom Sturridge;) enigmatic new girl Lily (Jessica Raine) or her boyfriend Nicholas (o hai, gorgeous blond Nicholas Banks.) Pretty soon though it becomes apparent who's that little bit more unhinged, and we get the chilling line "Don't come into school tomorrow." Director Sarah Frankcom handles the suspenseful climax very well - the woman sitting next to me bordered on hyperventilating. Along the way it's worth mentioning a speech Chadwick gives which distills Stephens' reasons for why today's young people may feel under more pressure than other generations (inheriting a world where the actual extinction of the human race in the next couple of centuries doesn't seem that far-fetched) which got a round of applause tonight. My one gripe plot-wise was with why Chadwick continues to go to the isolated old library where he knows he'll be attacked, when it's established early on that there's other options for the sixth-formers; there's a line about his locker being there but it seems an unlikely place for it. Otherwise though, a very strong piece of writing and another dynamic hit featuring a young cast for the Lyric.
Punk Rock by Simon Stephens is booking until the 26th of September at the Lyric Hammersmith before moving to the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.