Punk Rock by Simon Stephens

Pressure. Unbearable pressure. It’s the force that turns coal into diamonds and children into monsters. It’s the force behind plays that raise the heart into the throat and causes hands to form fists. It’s the force central to Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock. Under that pressure, this Fringe production by Pigeon Collective has become something diamond-like too – sharp, rare and valuable.

Punk Rock is a diamond of a production. The pressure that made it is still there – it left me like a diver rising too fast.

Seven sixth-formers at an English prep college share a favourite spot in the school. Their lives play out in that room, from the significant problems of bullying, the future and sexuality to the small things like classes and crushes. As the plot develops, incompatible pieces are forced together in that little space until the opposing forces threaten to blow the walls out.

The often trivial dialogue is made completely natural under Stephens’ pen; his control of pacing is such that even when the conversation veers into the realm of subplot and meaningless teenage chatter, there is still a sense, or a premonition, of increasing pressure. The thought 'not even kids are that dumb!' occasionally occurs, but it is always followed by 'yes, they are, now that I think about it.'

But that kind of writing only works when coupled with performances that are equally emotionally complex and constantly tense. That is what I got. These are trained actors and it shows. This does mean that they all look too old for the parts that they’re playing, but it also means the show has the kind of polished professionalism hard to find among amateur productions.

There are no weak members of the cast. Oliver Matjasz in his central role of William is phenomenal. He has awkward particularities, complex goals that shine through his face and actions, but his most valuable contribution to the play is as a pressure gauge. As the tension grows, Matjasz shows that. His face slowly tightens, his tics worsen and his jokes start to sound less funny. When he’s not saying anything or even when he is off the stage, he still stays foremost in consideration, like a pipe that threatens to burst with its increasingly high-pitched screech.

Also on that level was Stefan Collins, who played Bennett, school bully extraordinaire. Collins reminded me of a lot of people I (and I’m sure everyone else) have had to put up with in the past. That resemblance inspires hate, a hard thing for a fictional character to earn, and one essential to appreciating the injustice of his actions.

Punk Rock is a diamond of a production. It is not, however, like the Crown Jewels – don’t expect to float by with all the other tourists. The pressure that made it is still there – it left me like a diver rising too fast – and it is that that is inherent to its exceptional value.

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The Blurb

Take a glimpse inside the world of an expensive private school in northern England. Shocking, harsh and brutal, Punk Rock will immerse you in a world only a minority of us will ever see. Following the lives of a group of A-level students trying to deal with the stresses of love, exams, self-confidence issues and trying to forge their way into the world after they leave the safe haven of education. Be prepared for a no holds barred insight into their world and see the world through their eyes.