Inspired by his time as a schoolteacher, Punk Rock is Simon Stephens’s attempt to dramatise the inner workings of a teenager’s mind, with all its contradictions, angst, intelligence and insecurities.
He captures this spectrum of teenage emotion by creating seven characters who are currently running the gauntlet of late childhood as they prepare to sit their mock A-Level exams in a Stockport grammar school. This group of white middle class teens has advantages that not all their peers share, yet the pressures upon them are no fewer; to achieve top marks in their exams, to make something of their lives, to be held in high esteem, to be distinctive yet ‘normal’. They know they are advantaged; none of them wants to be like the “Poundstretcher cardholders” of Stockport town that they hold in such contempt. They want to – and are expected to – leave Stockport behind in their ascent to successful adulthood. You are not meant to like your hometown.
We meet this group of teens at the same time as Lilly (Jessica Raine), the new girl at school. With her fake-fur coat and her nose in the air, Lilly initially seems too self-assured for a teenager, the quick-fire dialogue between her and fellow sixth-former William (Tom Sturridge) too articulate, too confident. And yet, under this slick demeanour lies a bubbling cauldron of discontent, insecurity and frustration. Lilly cuts herself for pleasure; William lies to get her attention.
Their schoolmates, who gather in Paul Wills’s vast library set, include: the sexually confused Bennett, who uses violent machismo to disguise his homosexuality; Harry, whose geeky non-conformity and almost autistic-like intelligence makes him the subject of derision; and girls Cissy and Tanya, who suffer under the their own pressures to get straight As, to be thin, to have it all. The way in which they all treat each other shows Stephens’s grasp of how cruel teenagers can be; they are all suffering under pressure and yet they impose it on themselves, lashing out at others due to their own discontent.
This is a true ensemble piece and the young cast, many of whom are making their professional stage debuts, root Stephens’s characters in reality. Sturridge, as the volatile and delusional William, is particularly well cast, his dark, deep set eyes indicating the latent turmoil that simmers beneath the gauche, schoolboy surface image. It is William who takes Punk Rock to its violent and highly topical climax.
Britain treats its children badly, says Stephens in a programme note. Punk Rock makes it clear that pushing our high-achieving teens to breaking point is yet another way in which we mistreat our youth.