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A CurtainUp London London Review
Punk Rock

The fur trade's abominable. People who wear fur coats should be skinned alive in my opinion.— William
Punk Rock
Jessica Raine as Lilly and Tom Sturridge as William
(Photo: Helen Maybanks)
Simon Stephen's new play is set in the Sixth Form of a fee paying Grammar School in Stockport among a group of 17 year olds who are applying to university and taking 'A' level examinations. Lilly Cahill (Jessica Raine) has just joined the school because her father has moved his university job to Manchester. She is attractive, bright and self harms. On her first day she meets William Carlisle (Tom Sturridge), a quirky and slightly odd but interesting and likeable boy with a good line in conversation but who gets bad headaches.

Bennett Francis (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) is the school Alpha male, cocky and confident, he bullies the weaker pupils: Chadwick Mead (Harry McEntire) the geeky boy in the bright green puffa jacket who wants to go to Cambridge to read Maths and Tanya Gleason (Katie West) a nice but under confident and homely girl who has a crush on her teacher. Bennett's self obsessed and anorexic girlfriend Cissy Franks (Sophie Wu) is very bright with a photographic memory, an ambitious mother and she is desperate to get out of Stockport. Nicholas Chatman (Nicholas Banks) is the sporting success, the muscular jock who looks like a grown man already and can afford designer fashion.

It is the first term of their last year at school with mock interviews preparing them for university entrance and mock A level examinations pending. The scholastic tensions are there as well as the usual teenage insecurities about sexuality and experiments with alcohol. Punk Rock is a difficult play to review without spoiling the shock factor of the violent outcome for a future audience so I have to skirt around the issues that drive Stephens' play. Suffice it to say that it is very well written, directed and credible.

The dialogue is accurate and exact, natural and vital and often very funny as these bright young things verbally spar. I found the character of Bennett despicable with his destructive ridicule of the others and vicious arrogance. I wanted someone to stand up to him and Chadwick delivers a wonderful speech prophesying the end of the world, putting Bennett into perspective. William asks Lilly out but is knocked back by her, he is unaware that she and Nicholas have been sexually active from her first week at the school. From this point William spirals down, drinking at school, behaving oddly and missing exams. Cissy's mortification when she gets a 'B' for English is revealing as a spoilt child.

The performances are of the very finest. Jessica Raine was in Harper Regan and Gethsemane at the National and is surely a future star, seen here as Lilly, interesting and bright but selfish and cruel as well as insecure. As Lilly talks about sex, flirting with Nicholas, the director Sarah Frankcom has her eating an apple which she takes a bite out of but spits out in a symbolic moment of provocative teasing. Tom Sturridge, as William, making his professional stage debut, and what a debut, is likeable if slightly strange with his odd ruffled hairstyle which Lilly calls shy hair.

The set is a grand and soaring Gothic Upper School Library, quite magnificent, a place where the sixth form can meet to talk undisturbed. Here William offers to show Lilly a second edition of Walter Scott's Waverley stored on the higher stack. In between scenes there is contemporary rock, edgy and raucous.

Simon Stephens has written a great play that I should be quite happy to see again. The dialogue has wit and more as it reveals the pain of the transition into an uncertain adulthood. I can see Punk Rock being studied by future generations of 'A' level students.

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Punk Rock
Written by Simon Stephens
Directed by Sarak Frankcom

Starring: Jessica Raine, Tom Sturridge
With: Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Sophie Wu, Katie West, Nicholas Banks, Harry McEntire, Ghazaleh Golpira, Simon Wolfe
Design: Paul Wills
Lighting: Philip Gladwell
Sound: Pete Rice
Fight and movement: Mike Ashcroft
Running time: One hour 50 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 0871 22 117 22
Booking to 26th September 2009 at the Lyric Hammersmith, then 7th to 31st October at the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 9th September 2009 performance at the Lyric Hammersmith, King Street, London W6 (Tube: Hammersmith)

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