by Simon Stephens
Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith
18th September 2010, matinee
The Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith is a visual delight every time. In 1966 they demolished the original 19th century opera house and re-assembled it inside a modern concrete and glass box, so you walk upstairs and along modern corridors and go in through the doors to discover that ornate proscenium theatre, with its ground floor suspended two floors above street level.
One advice to the management though. When you’ve travelled a hundred miles to get there and paid £25 per ticket, it’s galling to walk in past a large sign proclaiming that you can have two free tickets for the first night if you live … or even work … in Hammersmith or Fulham. Advertise it, yes. It’s a good way to start word-of-mouth, but don’t do it as you go in. We provincials are getting generally pissed about nationally subsidised London theatres and the preferential treatment for locals. If you live 100 miles away it’s too expensive to be a “member” of the National Theatre or the Donmar Warehouse, but if you’re not a member, you’ll phone to find all the decent tickets have gone for productions. London gets the lion’s share of national subsidies because it’s central, then favours its own citizens. Obviously local authorities support a great deal too, but that happens everywhere.
Punk Rock was a matinee, and a captioned performance for the hard of hearing. Our neighbours had also travelled 100 miles, in their case, to get to a rare captioned performance. However, as with last time I saw a captioned performance, the screen interferes, your eye can’t miss it and captions like LOW RUMBLE, ELECTRONIC SOUND and DISTORTED MUSIC are mildly amusing. There was lots of the last. The other thing is you start noticing which actors deviate from the script most and alter lines. Some do it a lot. Some hardly at all. In fact, most changes were little tweaks and improvements, so quite possibly arrived at in rehearsal. The captions are from the original script. It’s a minor distraction.
The play was performed at the Lyric in 2009, and revived this year, starting with a week at the Lyric before a national tour. The writer, Simon Stephens, says he set out to write a play for a young cast (i.e, twenty- somethings playing schoolkids) and he does. The various references in the programme to Catcher in The Rye, If …. and The History Boys are pushing the point. There are similarities in subject matter, but it’s not in that class. Very little is, of course. It’s also got nothing to do with punk rock. The short pieces of loud distorted music are used to indicate scene changes, and it works, but Sonic Youth and The White Stripes aren’t punk. I wondered if the original concept had been set in in the punk rock era, and someone had said (quite rightly), no, set it NOW.
The young cast are excellent in a tautly-directed production. The unity of place is there … the sixth form library in a Stockport paying grammar school. No plot spoilers here, though we had both guessed the ending some way before it arrived. Some scenes are of the highest quality … particularly the bullying scene where Bennett (Edward Franklin) picks on the school nerd, Chadwick (Mike Noble). Every one of the cast is strong. I picked out Laura Pyper as Lilly as outstanding, but then again she has the best part, certainly the best part in Act One, as the new arrival to the school, upsetting the established pecking order.
I had misgivings about the play itself. It reminded me of a lot of late 60s / early 70s plays where quite comic interchanges build to a deliberately “significant climax” (as much as I can say without plot spoiling.) The end piece wasn’t essential and detracts from the drama, though if it hadn’t been there we might have said the end was too dramatic. I wasn’t bowled over by the quality of dialogue either, but in retrospect, I’m sure that was the distracting influence of the caption board rolling out the lines as they were said. I was glad I went to see it, and I was glad I hadn’t read any detailed reviews so the plot was able to unfold without prior knowledge. We discussed it for an hour afterwards in the car going back, and we don’t do that with bad plays. (What happened to Lilly? was a major theme). I’d recommend it to anyone in the towns on the tour.