Let me take you back to a time before the Easter break, before looming exams, and incessant conversations with parents and teachers about ‘what happens next’. The stage is set – stages, actually – for this year’s crop of A1 and A2 plays. Over in the Theatre, the gloomy autocratic nightmare of Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ is tightening its grip – see our review of this piece here. Meanwhile, in the Studio, anyone who knows Hurtwood would be forgiven for assuming they’d walked into the old common room by mistake: wood panelled walls, prefab desks, plastic chairs, and – hold on – is that the sofa from The Lodge? It seems to be the common room alright, but not as we know it – they’re wearing uniforms for a start…
We’re here to watch ‘Punk Rock’, Simon Stephens’ frenetic take on sixth form education: the traumas, the relationships, the bullying and the exams. This has been put together in no time flat by the Theatre dept, led with interminable energy by Stephen Smith. Things begin with the arrival of a new student, Lilly – played with equal parts swagger and sweetness by Ellie Previero – who strikes up a conversation with William – Sam Menhinick, all affable awkwardness. It’s clear from the beginning that this play isn’t going to be something nostalgic, a comment on the best years of our lives. This is about something much darker and more brooding – the tension and brutality of young adults brought close together and with little guidance or supervision, typified by alpha male Beau Gater’s increasingly menacing confrontations. The insight of Nicholas – played by Chris Spiring, as an egotistical, preening sports fanatic – that ‘it’s not about being a swot… it’s about wanting to do my best’ is easily offset by the harsh reality of parental expectations, or what happens when parents are entirely absent. The pretty, vacant, A-grade hysteric Cissy – played by Rachel Jones – puts it best when she says that her mum will kill her if she, ‘gets anything less than an A’, the real human cost of competitive academia. At times, this is a re-run of Larkin’s critique of parenthood, but one which is defiantly unpoetic (‘parents can be complete shits’). This is vaping out the fire exits, home truths, family traumas, teen pregnancy, fears and secrets.
Tanya, played by Matilde Mesquita de Melo, is the prissy prefect, straight-backed, with her copy of ‘Frankenstein’ always to hand, tutting scornfully over her carrot batons as the other students share a chip butty. This is more than stealing lunch money – this is drunken absentee parents, apocalyptic fantasies, pointless lies and the real violence of dead teachers, and heads being beaten against desks. Which brings us to the final, most enigmatic character, Chadwick, played with cold precision by Eve Elliott Sidi. She is alienated, disconnected and ruthlessly intelligent. But, most importantly, she sees the pointlessness of all the bickering with a statement that is much more familiar to us in 2022 with the advent of the ‘climate crisis’ movement, than it would have been in 2009:
The oceans will rise. The cities will flood. The power stations will flood. Airports will flood. Species will vanish for ever. Including ours. So if you think I’m worried by you calling me names, Bennet, you little, little boy, you are fucking kidding yourself.
The stage design is pitch perfect, aided by Al Coulton’s uncanny set design, and Elizabeth Poulter’s nylon-heavy costumes. The tension is cranked up by noisy, violent dance montages set to a soundtrack of The Jesus Lizard, The White Stripes and The Stooges. The piece has all the fritty energy of a flaming can of Lynx deodorant. There is a refreshing refusal to take sides here, rather, there is an acknowledgement of Tennessee Williams: ‘There are no good or bad people… just people on the wrong path’. This was a thoughtful, timely piece of theatre, played with real conviction. A piece for our times.