Thu 23rd February to Sat 25th February
William Carlisle. The world at his feet. Its weight on his shoulders. Intelligent. Articulate. Messed up
"Everything human beings do finishes up bad in the end. Everything good human beings ever make is built on something monstrous. Nothing lasts. We certainly won't...".William Carlisle has the world at his feet but its weight on his shoulders. He is intelligent, articulate and f***ked. In the library of a fee-paying grammar school, William and his fellow Sixth-Formers are preparing for their mock A-Levels while navigating the pressures of teenage life. They are educated and aspirational young people, but step-by-step, the dislocation, disjunction and latent aggression is revealed. Simon Stephens' critically acclaimed play premièred at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2009.
At one point in Punk Rock, the troubled and introspective Lilly proclaims in a rare burst of impassioned speech: 'Ninety nine per cent of the young people in this country do a really good job at the actual work of being alive.'
We can only assume that the sixth-form library in the fee-paying grammar school in Stockport, where the play is set, harbours a disproportionate number of exceptions. By the penultimate scene, the stage is littered with almost as many dead bodies as Elsinore Castle in the final scene of Hamlet.
The killer turns out to be William, brilliantly played by Pete Meredith, a star in the making. A bundle of neuroses is William. Only gradually does his gaucheness evolve into incandescent rage and his fantasies into psychopathic reality. Not to put too fine a point on it, he's barking mad.
Intelligent, too. He has an interview pending at Cambridge, which just happens to be the city that Lilly recently left. She is the newcomer to Stockport, one of many places in which she has been schooled as her academic father moves from town to town, his family limping unwillingly behind.
Lilly is a self-harmer who has a tendency to whip out a cigarette lighter at regular intervals to burn her wrists. Now she finds herself among a collection of contemporaries unlikely to improve her state of mind. Admittedly, she finds some consolation in the muscular arms of Nicholas, a rugby player who spends more time in the gym than the library and, as a result, appears to be slightly less stressed than the rest of the cast.
In Simon Stephens's play, the library is more like a laboratory for us to study at close quarters the angst and insecurities of adolescence. The sparse set and the decision, presumably by director Gennie Holmes, to use the floor of the theatre rather than the stage work well. It intensifies the claustrophobic feeling that we, the audience, are peering over each other's shoulders to observe something luridly fascinating as the hormones bubble and the tension mounts.
An hour and three-quarters seem to fly by. By the time William is facing a future in Broadmoor rather than Cambridge, it doesn't seem five minutes since he was introducing himself to Lilly and expressing the pious hope that her fur coat was fake. His concern for animal welfare seems ironic in the light of his subsequent disregard for human life. And his chat-up lines leave something to be desired. One minute he's asking Lilly where she went to primary school - Tunbridge Wells, as it happens - the next he's blurting out: “Will you go out with me?”
Flo Henderson as Lilly manages cleverly to convey a mixture of surprise and pity mingled with faint disgust. Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, perhaps. Hers is a complex role to pull off and, for the most part, she does it with aplomb. A little more voice projection and it would have been perfect.
If Lilly's rejection of his advances is a catalyst for pushing William over the edge, it is the bullying Bennet who increases the overall sense of unease by constantly picking on the hyper-intelligent Chadwick to the point of humiliation. Jack Hawker uses his height to makes a good fist of playing Bennet, despite his fresh face and evidently amiable disposition.
There are times when the audience has to suspend disbelief. Ben Lancashire, who plays Chadwick, looks more than capable of swatting Bennet the menace away like a tiresome fly. Instead he cowers and caves in to intimidation while, at the same time, subtly alerting us to the source of his tormentor's insecurities - the uncomfortable realisation that he fancies boys as much as girls.
Meg Levermore is clearly not fat, but gives a good impression of a girl struggling with weight problems. Georgia Brown plays Bennet's girlfriend Cissy with sassy self-confidence until she, too, is un-nerved by his behaviour as well as niggling concerns about his sexuality. What really spooks her, however, is the results if her mock A-levels. She only has a B in English. 'Don't tell my mother,' she implores.
It's a reminder that these are the gilded youth of Stockport, the privileged ones with the wealthy parents. The ones who are expected to go to the best universities. The ones who look down on their less fortunate contemporaries - those facing a future stacking supermarket shelves, for which they may or may not be paid.
You leave the theatre thinking thank God I'm not 17 again, facing the brave new world that has been created for our young people. Far fewer than 99 per cent are likely to get a really good job to go with 'the actual work of being alive.'