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Saturday, 10 October 2009

Theatre – Punk Rock at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

Star rating – 9/10

Simon Stephens’ last production performed at the Royal Exchange, ‘On the Shore of the Wide World’ in 2005 was deservedly critically acclaimed and went on to a successful run at the National Theatre. His new, equally if not slightly superior production, Punk Rock, which is also set in Stephens’ native town of Stockport, has made the reverse journey from an earlier run at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith to its current Manchester debut.

It is a mesmerising, powerful play which grips the audience’s attention for the whole of its uninterrupted 1 hour and 50 minutes. It is set in the sixth form of a private school, with the arrival of a new girl, Lily (Jessica Raine), to the small band of students. Lily’s arrival really stirs things up, and brings new friendships, romances, passions, jealousies and deeply hidden insecurities to the fore very quickly. The remarkable cast, played by young actors, with only minor one adult role in the whole piece, are totally convincing. The action is in turns highly amusing, but also deeply disturbing.

Special mention must be made of Tom Sturridge, who plays the frustrated, intelligent and lonely William with astonishing accuracy in his stage debut. He is certainly one to watch. The themes of the play do not make easy viewing. One central one is the nature of insidious bullying, and how others look on as bystanders, afraid to stand up for the victim for fear of being one themselves. Another is the sexual tension that fizzes around the group of students as they tentatively explore their relationships with each other.

They dream about getting away from Stockport, and why would they not indeed! But in reality it is their fumbling adolescent selves they want to escape from – and that is a bit more tricky. William fantasises about a potential relationship with Lily, and about past tragedies that are supposed to have befallen his family. His fragile balance is eventually toppled – leading to a horrific denouement, which Stephens builds up to with incredible tension in this gripping and brilliant production.

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