Mock exams. Double English. UCAS forms. Sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it?
Half the success of Punk Rock lies in this familiarity. Set in a sixth form library, the first few scenes introduce believable characters which lull the audience into a false sense of security. Rob Oldham’s at-ease portrayal of Nicholas, anchors a cast of characters that you feel you already know. Similarly, the awkward advances of William (Matt Clayton) toward Lilly (Helena Eccles) – offering to walk her to lessons by “the scenic route” – are comic, but instantly recognisable.
It is therefore all the more shocking when the characters reveal their sinister flaws. The heart of the play is in these flaws and their ability to corrupt the apparently normal, expressed through a series of captivatingly tense scenes. First among them is when William watches Lilly burn herself with a lighter, Eccles’ silent gasps of pain and Clayton’s grimace speaking volumes. Indeed, it pays to watch the facial expressions in “Punk Rock”, which are consistently expressive without becoming exaggerated. Thus, it was such a shame when characters turned their backs during a few key moments. Admittedly, this was rare and, given the peculiar “L” shape of the Corpus Playroom, it understandably difficult to have the cast interact while facing all the audience all the time.
Despite an exceptional cast, Matt Bradley stands out in his performance as bully, Bennett. When his character torments the nerdy Chadwick, Bradley commands not only the stage but the entire auditorium. The pressure to laugh along with, or at least acquiesce in the face of, Bennett’s appalling behaviour chokes the audience. At least twice the audience gave snorts of forced laughter, as if worried that otherwise Bennett may turn on them.
Consequently, the references to “getting out” carried all the more significance. While the characters meant escaping from Stockport, in the audience there was a desire to escape from a plot that drove inevitably towards total meltdown. The tension was only broken by the eponymous punk rock between scenes. Rather than mirroring the atmosphere on stage, the music undid it in an uncomfortable juxtaposition.
Niggles like that aside, a flawless production.