Punk Rock Review – Sydney Morning Herald

Hell’s Like Teen Spirit: Naive, Cruel

ATYP Studio, The Wharf, July 27. Until August 11

Even without recent events in Aurora, Colorado playing on your mind, this production of Simon Stephens’s 2009 drama will just about floor you with the cold ferocity of its climax.
School daze: Darcie Irwin Simpson and Sam O’Sullivan
Punk Rock is set in the stuffy library of a selective school in well-heeled Stockport, Manchester. Its habitués are the high-achievers, mostly from comfortable backgrounds: straight-A student Cissy and her boyfriend Bennett, the room’s self-appointed agent provocateur; sparky Tanya, often on the receiving end of Bennett’s cruel tongue, as is Chadwick, a scholarship-funded mathematics fiend.
Nicholas is smart, sporty and fancies himself a bit. Posh newcomer Lily fancies him, too, which is a stake in the heart for William, whose regard for his own intellectual capacities makes him especially unforgiving of failures he perceives in others.
All are about to sit their “mock” A-levels and the pressure is on. Parents are expecting to see a return on their investment in their children’s education. Futures are in the balance. Is Stephens trying to draw a link between all this to the viciousness of the verbal and physical hazing? Maybe, though nothing quite prepares you for the moment when all this anxiety and resentment is discharged.
Stephens’s teens seem unnaturally precocious at first though we soon begin to hear the naivety underpinning their assertions. Academically bright they may be, but they are also a mess of hormones, prone to bigotry, vulnerable in matters of the heart, and tormented by the fear of failure.
Anthony Skuse directs (after an excellent Lord of the Flies for the New Theatre) and his gripping production keeps you on the edge of your seat for its no-interval duration. Staging the play on a traverse set (by Gez Xavier Mansfield) is the masterstroke, creating a sense of intimacy while allowing the audience to observe waves of tension build and break among their numbers opposite.
Skuse draws out some exceptional performances, led by a charismatic and disquieting Sam O’Sullivan as William. Graeme McRae is splendidly toxic as Bennett, Madeleine Jones creates a snippily credible swot in Cissy, and Darcie Irwin Simpson smolders classily as sixth form siren Lily. Tanya Gleason, Owen Little and Gabriel Fancourt offer nuanced support, as does Paul Hooper as the play’s sole adult.
Stephens’s coda – almost a short play in itself – allows the accumulated tension to flow to earth. It lets us off the hook, perhaps, but without it, Punk Rock would leave its audience shocked and desolate.
July 29, 2012