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Philip Hamer hails a new play at the Royal Exchange as an anthem for doomed youth

Published on October 15th 2009.


IT is the first time that a Royal Exchange production has debuted elsewhere, but Punk Rock is worth the wait.

Fresh from a premiere at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, critics have already described its Olivier Award-winning writer, Simon Stephens, as one of the most talented dramatists to emerge in recent years.

It is the remarkable Royal Exchange Theatre space that truly enhances the production. It invites you to join the sixth formers in the library and, when the mayhem ensues, never lets you leave.

It takes place in a fee-paying grammar school in Stockport, Stephens’ home town. His seven sixth formers, four boys and three girls, represent the competing egos and colliding angst of arrogant, precocious teenagers.

Punk Rock pulsates with the buzzing energy of highly intelligent and privileged youth. Stephens depicts this as a powerful blend of faux cynicism and confused optimism spiked through with shards of unspeakable, interpersonal cruelty. At its core though is an unpredictable nihilism that erupts into violence when the play’s troubled protagonist William Carlisle, brilliantly portrayed by Tom Sturridge, bursts into the library waving a loaded gun.

Stephens sets the action against the intellectual hot-house of mock A-level exams, and in its early stages before darkness descends, it is marvelously funny. Later, Stephens moves into the territory of novelistic heavyweights William Golding and Ian McEwan, reminding us how malevolent young minds can be when there are no adults around. Pointedly, you never meet their teachers.

The demands upon the audience are many. The action runs for just under two hours. There is no interval. And as you might expect given the age of the characters and the locale, the language

is as graphic as any I’ve heard in the theatre. Occasionally the desire to present acutely contemporaneous language seems too forced. But this is a small quibble, dwarfed by the fact that at this production’s heart is that magical quality exclusive to theatre as an art form: that nothing is ever what it really appears to be.

The performances and Sarah Frankcom’s direction are extremely assured. Though once again it is the remarkable Royal Exchange Theatre space that truly enhances the production. It invites you to join the sixth formers in the library and when the mayhem ensues, never lets you leave. The action becomes almost too unbearable to watch and some theatregoers near me covered their eyes as the tension was notched up.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that Stephens is a remarkable talent. By highlighting the schisms that society’s overblown expectations can cause in young people, he has given us a theatre visit that will not easily fade from memory.

*Punk Rock: Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre, 0161 833 9833, until October 31. www.royalexchangetheatre.org.uk

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Peter Coyle

i wish i had been there…it sounds like something joyous and anarchic...the way the article is…

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Couldn't agree more. This is a super piece. Ken would be proud that not a penny of public money was…

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Reader Xxx

The review was indeed brilliant - congratulations Angie. The show must have been very special -…

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Claudia Boulton

Thanks Angie for your brilliant piece, so glad you wrote it! Now i know what was going on! Being in…

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