At the end of the play, 17 year old Will Carlisle asks his psychologist, played by Annie Chrispin, what it is that causes an intelligent, young person to inflict awful violence on another human being. Simon Stephens’ play Punk Rock offers no simple answers to this question, but leaves us with a sense that we must keep asking and, in this complex, stressful and confusing modern age, the imperative to find solutions has never been greater.
When William, played compellingly by Arthur Handscomb in a virtuoso performance, becomes increasingly troubled in the competitive, acerbic environment of his high-achieving school, he eventually chooses what seems to be the inevitable, and yet utterly unthinkable, option. Arthur deftly guides us through the unravelling of William’s mind, but here the set design must also take great credit as the oppressive, box-like room of the school library doubles cleverly as the interior of his disturbed psyche. We are subjected to an onslaught of projected images flickering dangerously, screaming guitars and unsettling noises buzzing just within hearing range.
However, Will is not the only struggling young man on the scene. Indeed, there is a moment when the bullied and awkward Chadwick Meade — played with a truthful yet comic pathos by Lex Edwards — issues a tearful and furious tirade at the state of the world and you cannot but help think that Stephens has captured the mood of our increasingly solipsistic society and that this is exactly where we are all headed. Into this already dysfunctional situation, add the alluring yet inevitably troubled character of Lilly — played with focus and nuance by Toni Taor — as she serves as the catalyst for William’s mental decline when she refuses his heartfelt proposal, and reveals she has already struck up a relationship with Nicholas — played with a naive arrogance by Ollie Corbett.
With echoes of The History Boys remixed for the Insta/Prozac/High School shooting generation, the inevitable academic viciousness and emotional sparring that accompanies their high pressure teenage environment spirals further out of control, as the bullying inflicted upon Chadwick by the stunningly despicable and repressed thug, Bennett (maybe even his name is a tribute to the writer of The History Boys), played with such a joyous awfulness by Toby Escolme, and supported unquestioningly by his intelligent, yet morally complacent, girlfriend — a controlled and very watchable Aimee Williamson. Only Poppy Francis’s kind and timid Tanya offers much sympathy to Chadwick’s plight at the hands of Bennett, and with some moral justice and predictability, both survive the dénouement’s catastrophe.
Under the pin-sharp direction of Mr Jon Scott, this young cast belie their own age and grow into their parts with real energy, pace and maturity; it is a fantastic ensemble performance. There are two more stars of the show — the first is the set as already mentioned — rolling back at the end to reveal a sanitised institution engaged in a futile attempt at ‘fixing’ William. In a scene reminiscent of Macbeth’s horror at seeing Banquo’s ghost, William is confronted by the spectres of his own actions. We must remember how lucky we are to be able to create such high quality staging like this in a school environment, as it would not look out of place in a professional production. Congratulations must go here to the stage crew who delivered a slick and well-rehearsed technical performance.
Finally, dangerously close to stealing the show was the performance punk band — Max Hartley, James Patient, Henry Rigden and fronted by a gloriously strutting Jesse Dunbar. Their raucous and yet perfectly performed and timed punk rock extracts cleverly bookmarking the play’s progression.
The play doesn’t give us any easy answers, but reminds us that the world we live in can drive people to do terrible things if we let it and an irreverent touch of Cranleigh’s motto over the door tells us that if we do not take the welfare of each other and the world seriously, the unthinkable might not be something that only happens to other people.