Culture Writer Frankie Rhodes reviews a moving touring production of Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Spendid SunsWritten by Frankie Rhodes on 17th May 2019
Infinity Stage Company Presents: ‘Punk Rock’ by Simon Stephens
Simon Stephens’s Punk Rock is easy to relate to. If you’ve ever been to school, you’ll have met a group of characters not unlike the ones in the play: there’s the bully, the weird one, the bullied, the girls who are shallow and hollowly self-deprecating. That’s not to say the play is boring; this is a familiar world that we are thrown into, which means that the audience can relate to each and every character on some level – even if it is just to shudder at the recollection of being at school.
Punk Rock has another level, though. It is concerned with the fragility of mental health: it is no coincidence that the characters are placed in the high-pressure environment of Sixth Form during their mock A Level exams.
At times, the play relies too heavily on stereotypes. Bully Bennett is a little two-dimensional: the audience is given the impression that he is angry because of his concealed sexuality. His bullying methods are not intelligent or sly, either: he is blatantly violent and abusive, rather than manipulative. Moreover, this is where the play’s true weakness is shown: the remaining characters take a long time to challenge Bennett. It is unbelievable that a group of seventeen to eighteen year olds would fail to say anything to him. Were the characters fourteen years old, their fear of him would be more understandable, but here it seems too unrealistic (as does Cissy’s love for her boyfriend. Bennett’s lack of Machiavellian skill highlights a flaw in the relationship: there seems to be no reason for Cissy to be with Bennett).
The play also suffers from issues of pacing. While the group dynamic is well-established in the first half of the play, and a sense of impending drama is created, the second half feels rushed, with William’s mental decline occurring over a matter of a few days, culminating in a school shooting that seems to happen a little too soon. While Stephens’s exploration of mental health is commendable, it often becomes too expositional; the final scene between William and a psychiatrist, in which the ghost of Nicholas appears, seems superfluous, and really discredits the rest of the script, which is (for the most part) sharp and witty.
All this being said, the cast and crew of this production deserve whole-hearted praise. Co-directors Alice Hodgson and Ricky Carey worked with a talented cast to produce a play that the audience could feel involved in: the audience laughed, sighed at William’s failure to pursue Lily and were audibly shocked at some of the insults thrown by the characters.
James Dolton made an excellent William. Despite his mental health being fragile, he was endearing and likeable, even towards the end of the play. William’s outbursts could quite easily become melodramatic, but Dolton handled them with a professionalism that made them feel raw and realistic; his portrayal was evidently the result of having studied the character very well.
Katherine Grayson was well cast as Lily. Her facial expressions and movements were perfect for the character: she was alluring and interesting (as the new girl often is), and yet was able to move into the character’s more serious side with ease.
Matt Saull was an interesting choice for class outsider Chadwick. Saull could have easily looked out of place being bullied by Danny Hetherington’s Bennett, but he embodied his character’s nervousness and fear, and conveyed his character’s anger with conviction.
What is most interesting about Punk Rock is the inarguable presence of postmodern nihilism. Both William and Chadwick discuss a loss of faith in community (whether it be religious or local), and Lily admits that she hates everyone. It was in these moments that the cast really shone; while their handling of the common room banter was entertaining, their talent was displayed by their ability to communicate the greater issues convincingly. The play has something very We Need to Talk About Kevin about it, and yet really does not achieve the emotional impact of the novel. However, the cast and crew of this production created a play that was entertaining, interesting and thought-provoking, and therefore deserve nothing but praise.