by Lynn on April 7, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

l-r: Hallie Seline, James Graham
Photo: Neil Silcox

At the Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Ave, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Simon Stephens

Directed by Gregory Prest

Set and costumes by Nancy Anne Perrin

Lighting by Jareth Li

Sound by Andy Trithardt

Fight master, Simon Fon

Cast: Tim Dowler-Coltman

Ruth Goodwin

James Graham

Sophia Jin

Sam Kalilieh

Cameron Laurie

Marleigh Merritt

Andrew Pimento

Hallie Seline

Kristen Zaza

A jaw-clenching, gut-twisting play about bullying in a grammar school in north England with chilling results. The production is terrific.

The Story.  PUNK ROCK  (2009 approx.) is by prolific British writer, Simon Stephens.. He writes about the lonely soul and about the marginalized in a way, people living among us, normal, but lost.

PUNK ROCK is about a group of 17 year old kids in Stockport, a city in greater Manchester, England.  Stockport factors heavily in a few of Simon Stephens’ plays as a place the inhabitants hate and want to leave as soon as possible.

These kids are in a grammar school that they pay for, we would consider it a private school. The students are all bright and are aiming to go to either Cambridge or Oxford.

William Carlisle (Cameron Laurie) is a smarmy intellectual who welcomes Lilly Cahill (Ruth Goodwin), the new kid, into the class.  Lilly has moved around a lot with her family because her father is a professor. He teaches at Cambridge. Lilly is watchful, wily and not intimidated by the newness of the situation for her.

Bennett Francis (James Graham) is a loud-mouthed bully who likes to push the buttons of his classmates. Cissy Franks (Hallie Seline) is Bennett Francis’ girlfriend who seems to be under his thumb. Nicholas Chatman (Tim Dowler-Coltman) is a jock type, sweet, and certainly notices Lilly when she is introduced. Tanya Gleason (Kristen Zaza) is bubbly but not dippy who sometimes stands up to Bennett when he gets particularly mouthy. Chadwick Meade (Andrew Pimento) is the main focus of Bennett’s bullying. Chadwick is a bright young man but is so meek and passive that Bennett just beats on him. Richard Harvey (Sam Kalilieh) is a psychiatrist. And there is a young (pre-teen) who is Bennett’s sister who appears briefly.

They are all studying for mock exams and then the real ones to get them into university. Emotions are high, the tension is explosive and things turn violent.

The Production. The production is terrific.  Gregory Prest has directed this with such precision and attention to detail that you are gripped for the whole of it. Punk music blares out as the lights dim to dark to set the sense of abandon and even a sense of fury. The music also plays loudly between scenes as some cast member shake and dance  alone in the gloom, sometimes one wears a frog head covering (I couldn’t figure out the point of that, but it is effective). The music and wild dancing are in contrast to how uptight they all are in their lives.

The cast is very strong. As William, Cameron Laurie reveals a young man who fancies himself the class intellectual and shows off to Lilly who has just arrived at the school. He is trying to impress her with his brains and charm her with his erudition. For her part Ruth Goodwin as Lilly takes it all in stride. She is smart, confident and knows how to size up a situation and fit in because of all the schools she has had to attend. But we learn that she is not without guile. She plays people against each other.

Bennett Francis as played by James Graham is a loud-mouthed bully. He’s a strapping young man with a jutting jaw and a sneer and he knows how to intimidate with a sharp tongue. Because he’s imposing there is a hint of possible violence. He is both affectionate and cruel to Cissy, his girlfriend. Cissy (Hallie Seline) takes it with a hurt smile and a feeble attempt to stand up to him. For all his bluster it’s interesting to see Bennett completely back down and become almost docile when his younger sister quietly arrives to say that their mother is waiting to take him to the dentist. Wow, subtext is everything. I wonder what goes on in Bennett’s family dynamic that could make him so suddenly meek.

Nicholas Chatman (Tim Dowler-Coltman) is good natured, accommodating and mainly silent when Bennett is on a tear. Nicholas is not a coward, he’s just smart enough to know you don’t cross Bennett even though he could probably stand up to him. Nicholas’s reaction to seeing Lilly for the first time is subtle and telling.

The most put-upon character is Chadwick Meade, given a stunning performance by Andrew Pimento. Chadwick is diminutive, hunched, tightly clenched and Bennett’s main target. Chadwick takes all the abuse, both verbal and physical, with quiet stoicism. In his way he stands up to Bennett which only further enrages him. Chadwick has a chilling moment when all his rage at the world pours out of him and Andrew Pimento just lets loose in a torrent. Quite impressive.  Tanya Gleason (Kristen Zaza) is in the ‘in’ crowd for as long as she can take seeing the abuse Bennett gives out. When she stands up to him it is only momentarily as he goes after her with verbal fury.

Again, director Gregory Prest establishes those relationships that will shift and change subtly and not so subtly for the whole production. And Prest knows how to ramp up the tension from scene to scene. There is a scene toward the end of the play that is so explosive I flinched and I never do that.

In many cases these are odious people using each other for their own ends. We seem to endure abusive people in the theatre more than we do in ‘real life.’ But of course we gradually learn they all harbour secrets that explain their behaviour. PUNK ROCK is a roller coaster ride of emotion and fine acting.  And a flinch when you least expect it.

Comment. Of course considering what happened in Parkland, Florida recently with 17 people killed (teens and some of their teachers)  PUNK ROCK takes on a new resonance. But taken on its own Stephens presents a group of kids who all could be loose cannons.  One wonders who will lose it and take it out on his classmates.  And when it does happen it seems a surprise as to the character who loses it. Somehow the person doing the violence doesn’t seem a logical choice and that’s the beauty of the play.

It’s a frightening situation: when we look for logic when a person is so angry and explodes, as if there is a certain type of person who could do such a thing.  And of course, anybody could do such a thing.

The program is loaded with references to the freedom aspect of punk rock music.  Patti Smith and Kurt Cobain both are quoted as saying that the music is freedom, abandon, doing what you want.  As it is the teens are all stuck in the rigidity of that town; the grip of those exams they must pass to get out and their own restrictive worlds in that school, their social structure etc.

Produced by The Howland Company

Opened: April 3, 2018.

Closes: April 14, 2018.

Running Time: 110 minutes

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1 David Schurmann April 12, 2018 at 12:02 pm

Hi Lynn,
I saw Punk Rock last night and was blown away by the production and above all by the acting, these kids were fantastic to a person. If they are the future of Canadian Theatre we are in safe hands.