Teenage kicks, teenage angst

Simon Stephens’s ‘Punk Rock’ is coming to the Lyric, in a statement of intent by the Belfast theatre’s new boss. So will it deliver something ‘live, direct, physical and unpredictable’?

Punk Rock: Rhys Dunlop, Jonah Hauer-King, Ian Toner and Rory Corcoran in Simon Stephens’s play. Photograph: Neil Harrison

Punk Rock: Rhys Dunlop, Jonah Hauer-King, Ian Toner and Rory Corcoran in Simon Stephens’s play. Photograph: Neil Harrison

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00

In the run-up to the release of Good Vibrations, the biopic about Terri Hooley, the record-shop owner who helped shape Belfast’s punk era, the novelist Glenn Patterson, who cowrote the screenplay, neatly summed up the spirit of the time and the quality of the music. “Kids only wanted to bash out something to express what they felt or wanted to feel or could identify with,” he said. “Educated finesse wasn’t part of their language. It was raw emotion, rough energy, unfettered by convention and responsive only to the immediate.”

“That’s a brilliant quote. It cuts to the quick of the energy in my play,” says Simon Stephens, whose Punk Rock is at the Lyric Theatre in the city from August 10th, and whose acclaimed adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time transfers from the West End to Broadway in October.

“I was a bit too young to have been into punk myself. I discovered music through Frankie Goes to Hollywood. But I remember talking in the playground at primary school about a band called the Sex Pistols and thinking that there was something profoundly naughty about the name.”

With serendipitous timing, during the anxious wait for Leaving Cert and A-level results, the Lyric’s executive producer, Jimmy Fay, has chosen it as the inaugural production of his first season. It will mark Selina Cartmell’s directing debut at the theatre.

When it was premiered in 2009, Punk Rock successfully kicked off the new regime at another Lyric – in Hammersmith in London, where Stephens is an associate artist. His prolific back catalogue very much fits the theatre’s aim “to produce work that is provoking, entertaining, eclectic, messy, contradictory and diverse; to lurch wildly between high art and populism – hopefully achieving both at the same time”.

“I write plays that I wish other people had written so that I could go and see them, plays that don’t exist but I wish did,” he says. “I loathe plays that leave me feeling patronised and looked down upon.”

Punk Rock is an edgy, explosive examination of teenage angst, inspired as much by Alan Bennett’s The History Boys as by the real-life horror of the Columbine High School massacre. The setting is not a failing school in a socially deprived inner-city area but a fee-paying grammar school, whose articulate pupils, for all their swagger and outward confidence, are racked with insecurity, self-doubt and fear of failure.

One might assume direct references to Stephens’s own schooldays, but the story is built around Stockport Grammar in Cheshire, a privileged institution that he used to gaze at enviously from his comprehensive school across the road.

You don’t have to be skint to be lonely

“It’s based on an imaginary experience I never had in a school I never went to,” he says. “If I had been a grammar-school boy I would never have written that play. It’s been performed all over the world, but its setting always remains Stockport. Outside the UK there’s a kind of exoticism about English suburbia. These kids are damaged by their access to wealth and the difficulties of emotional honesty. They are beset by despair and violence and loneliness. You don’t have to be skint to be lonely. It’s a great leveller.”

Had Stephens’s grandparents not moved from Belfast to the north of England when his mother was a teenager it might all have been very different. He concedes that he would probably have been among the hordes trudging up the tree-lined avenue of one of the city’s high-achieving colleges. Last year, when the Belfast company Pintsized produced Herons, one of his early plays, he started digging into his family roots and uncovered a textbook example of social ascendancy, moving from shipyards and linen mills into the heart of the establishment.

“I found out through my grandma, who is 93, that my great-granda was a cabinetmaker at Harland and Wolff and my great grandma was a mill girl,” he says. “My grandma was born in a street off the Donegall Road and baptised in St Anne’s Cathedral.

“My mum grew up off the Ormeau Road and was sent to the prep school and upper school of Methodist College [known locally as Methody]. My granda was head of PE at Methody and coached the victorious Schools Cup rugby team in 1952. To my absolute shame and my grandma’s fury, I have never been to Belfast. I am about to put that right at last.”

A stranger to these shores or not, he says Ireland is very much part of who he is. “People are forever reminding me of that, sometimes with great glee,” he says, chuckling. “Story is a very important element in my work and is an integral part of the tradition of British and Irish theatre. As a family we make sense of one another by the stories we tell each other. It’s something I have inherited from my grandmother, that proclivity to tell stories and be emotionally open.

“I was prompted to write this play by Tom Stoppard’s brilliant Rock’n’Roll, which was like a Mojo reader’s guide to the history of rock music. I knew then that I wanted to write a play about punk rock, to try to capture that same sense of emotional rawness. What I love in theatre is that it should not be seen as an art form associated with elitism but as something that is live, direct, physical, unpredictable and exciting.”

Punk Rock opens on August 14th and runs until September 6th

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