The Lantern, Bristol – until 13 January 2018
We always discuss as adults being given a second chance. Flop at a dream job interview. There will always be another one. Strike out on Tinder. The love of your life may just be around a corner. Get stuck in a dead end job. Well go out and change things. Being an adult is all about overcoming adversity, turning bad situations to ones in your favour. Samuel Beckett summed up the journey we all attempt to take in adulthood. ‘Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.’
Which is why the ethos of our modern education system seems so out of sync. Young people are told from an early age that success is all. Succeed and the world is your oyster. Fail and a life of misery lies ahead. Some of the most stressful days of life are undertaken in exam halls when the latest English paper decides if you can go on the journey you feel destined for. Success or failure. There is no in between.
The sixth form common room in Simon Stephens pulsating Punk Rock is an incendiary point ready to spark. The seven sixth formers the play introduces us too are standing on an edge of a precipice, no longer children but still trapped in limbo where their exam results will decide how they enter adulthood. These young adults are still discovering themselves, yet also have the pressure of exams hoisted upon them. Success. Failure. Once the fuse is lit an explosion is waiting to happen.
Stephens’ characters cover the gamut of awkward teenage adolescence. New girl Lily is a beguiling mix of sexual confidence and self-harming uncertainty to fantasist William, while Bennett, the epiphany of classic public school bully, takes his confusion over his sexuality out on those around him. His girlfriend Cissy has the status of being the ‘it’ girl but is balancing the pressure of needing straight A’s and being stuck in a loveless relationship with a guy that doesn’t respect.
Meanwhile, Tanya dreams of a stable country cottage and children with her teacher, a world away from the whirling pressure of the common room. Finally Nicholas and Chadwick represent polar opposites in social situations, the level-headed former being the teenager we all dreamed we could be; calm, cool and not afraid to raise his head above the parapet, and the latter- almost certainly on the Autistic spectrum- delivers an apocalyptic speech that demonstrates the teenagers dramas are but a footnote in the world while deliciously skewing those trying to play top dog.
It’s a work that really gets to the heart of teenagers. It doesn’t overtly put them on a pedestal, these teenagers are mouthy, headstrong and know best but it does celebrate them in all their fresh-faced possibilities. As many a teacher knows, sixth formers are often the best company, lacking the cynicism of adulthood and enthusiastically taking in the fountains of knowledge, learning about their place in the world. Stephens’s characters are shades of grey, just like a normal day in schools across the country, all have moments that leave you breathless in admiration and in the same breath leave you wanting to shake them in frustration.
Director Lisa Gregan has assembled a terrific cast. Previously I’ve seen the roles played slightly too old, young looking 20-21 year olds draped in school uniforms. This shows that up as a mistake. It may not seem much, but those years between late teen and early twenties are the defining moments for young people. It’s when they learn who they are going to be. A 21 year old is no more that 17 year old, than she is her 60 year old future. It’s an age more specific that the early to mid-20’s blur.
Tom Davies is a revelation as William, an awkward teenage fantasist whose anxieties take a darker turn. He is someone who has come through the ranks of the young company and now has been given a role that allows him to stretch his talents far. It is both highly credible and chillingly unnerving. Nell O’Hara has the poise and a sparkle in her eye to show why Lily cuts such a swathe through the boys at her new school. She learns her own lessons, to be kind can also to be cruel, her gentle rejection of William, not wanting to hurt him when she is actually seeing Ben, makes the later revelation of their relationship even more painful. Jack Orozoo Morrison, Hannah Tudge, Oscar Adams, Hannah Hecheverria and Toby Pritchard are all also first rate.
This production plays its explosive scene gentler than others I’ve seen. Before I’ve been struck with nausea when I’ve seen it, needed to escape the space, desperately wanting to avert my gaze while being compelled not to. This is quieter, still violent and nasty but less immersive. People drop, innocent and guilty alike. Some escape who you don’t expect. Many fall who shouldn’t. Violence is random. Fate plays a hand.
It all ends with a coda. A sense of normality after the devastation of before. The pressure of exams now unimportant. A distant past. Life events have a way of making things that once seemed the centre of the universe mean less. Stephens plays a trump here. Dreams tend to shrink and change as life extends. The dreams of conquering the world can simplify into just having a normal life. Children. An interesting job. The teenagers here have been forced into growing up. The Bristol Old Vic Young Company have matured with it and consequently have done Stephens play proud as a result.
Punk Rock plays at The Lantern, Colston Hall until the 13 January