Theatre review: Punk Rock, Clubhouse Theatre, Townsville

Young, emerging actors shine brightly in this school drama.
A teenage girl with her brunette hair in a ponytail is wearing school uniform and looking over to the side.

The puzzling thing when seeing a powerhouse performance such as this – which tackles such confronting themes – is to know quite how to react at the end.

Does an audience automatically measure its approval through its rapturous applause, or when the work is so effective in delivering a disturbing message, is that approval just as valid when greeted with a stunned silence? Such was the mixed reaction from the opening night audience for TheatreiNQ’s latest production, Punk Rock by British playwright Simon Stephens.

I had little idea of what the play was about beforehand, other than it concerned a group of sixth formers in a northern English private school preparing for their mock A-Levels and for the rest of their lives. Indeed, we are often told that “schooldays are the happiest days of our lives” – but what if they actually weren’t and all you are perhaps hankering for is the illusion of lost youth and no responsibility?

And, if truth be told, my notion of punk rock was a vague recollection of a loud and particularly aggressive brand of music that was around in the late 1970s, and which I strictly avoided. So somehow, linking that title with an essentially contemporary play of the 21st century seemed a tad unlikely. However, there are some interesting parallels to the notion of punk rock – a hard-edged genre featuring themes of anti-establishment and anti-authority – and the themes of this play.

Even though Stephens’ play premiered in 2009, it remains just as provocative and disquieting in its themes and depiction of youth. It is no surprise that Punk Rock has been almost constantly in professional production since then. It is an ideal choice for TheatreiNQ’s Bridge Project, the extraordinary, 12-year-old training program that develops emerging professionals and prepares regional talent for highly competitive tertiary education.

The result is disturbing, confronting and rather bleak, but at the same time is powerful and uncompromising. It is profane – but perhaps that’s just the ways kids talk to each other these days? It has a direct way of dealing with issues such as sex and bullying, but when one cuts through the contemporary clutter, aren’t we still essentially dealing with the same kinds of people that existed when we were at school? After all, we probably will always remember the school bully, the ridiculed nerd, the jock, the mean girl and myriad other characters that populated our school lives. 

In an interesting directorial choice, Terri Brabon has swapped the gender of the main character. “William” has become ”Willow” and it has produced a whole different set of possibilities and layering of character that has really made this one of the most interesting – and powerful – portrayals I have seen for a long time from any actor at any age.

This is a role that seldom comes along and Emma Smith’s powerhouse performance is so multifaceted and emotionally complicated that it is hard to believe that she – and the entire cast – are all actors in training. And, while Smith’s stage experience may be lengthy, she is still only 18. Yet it is clear that Brabon’s direction has enabled her to steer the role completely away from any linear predictability into the unknown quicksand of emotional complexity.

Matching her every step of the way in a different but equally disturbing role is Hunter Sams. Like Smith, we have seen this young Townsville actor grow and develop over the years to deliver here a psychologically menacing portrayal of the one school character we always remember – and loathe – the bully.

With a strong physical presence, Sams gives multiple dimensions to the psychopathic control and manipulation of his classmates and victims. He shows just how bullies always manage to enlist collusion from classmates through non-critical (and ultimately complicit) behaviour, while at the same time chillingly producing compliance from victims. This, too, is a soaring performance.

One aspect that has always set TheatreiNQ’s work apart is the strong sense of ensemble that imbues every production, and every single actor here delivers a finely-etched character – all delivered in strongly authentic Northern English accents. 

Kaden Ramm is particularly effective as the class nerd – the target of the bully’s constant needling – as is Ally Armitage-Cosgrove as the “ugly” girl. 

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Each young actor offers a fine portrayal of the characters, including Lily Bartlett as the “new girl” adding a dimension of reality and normality to the madness of the school, while Alyssandra Higgins plays the “mean girl”, forever complicit in her bully boyfriend’s antics and George Abednego lends a strong easy-going physical presence as the rugby jock. 

Impressively, the layout of TheatreiNQ’s theatre was transformed into an in-the-round setting, with an effective and workable set design from Brendan O’Connor and an uncomplicated but effective lighting design from Daniel Lobley. With a punk rock music score and some interesting transitions between scenes, the pace of the entire production never falters.

In summary? Two powerhouse performances faultlessly deliver in an unsettling play.

Punk Rock
By Simon Stephens
A TheatreiNQ Production

Director: Terri Brabon
Stage Manager/Lighting Design: Daniel Lobley
Set Design/Construction: Brendan O’Connor

Sound design: Terri Brabon, Fionn Baker-Gleeson
Lighting operator: Sasha Lea-Rowell
Sound Operator: Fionn Baker-Gleeson
Costumes: Kathy Brabon
Production assistants: The Bridge Project

Event Manager/Graphic Design: Anne-Marie Smith
Photography: Chrissy Maguire 
Cast: Lily Bartlett, Emma Smith, George Abednego, Kaden Ramm, Alyssandra Higgins, Hunter Sams, Ally Armitage-Cosgrove, Terri Brabon, Ava Saldana Lopez, Faith Taylor, Kiahna Culleton, Alva Tyrie

Tickets: $30-$40

Punk Rock will be performing until 29 June 2024.

Trevor Keeling has been involved in the arts and creative industries for 40 years in Australia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. He has been an actor, theatre director, journalist and critic, publisher, broadcaster, music festival director, event manager and arts administrator. Since coming to Australia in 1991, he appeared in numerous productions in Adelaide, and was Festival Director of the Glenelg Jazz Festival for six years. He was General Manager of Dancenorth in Townsville (2005-2006 and 2011-2014) and for three years was CEO of Mirndiyan Gunana Aboriginal Corporation, which included managing the world-renowned Indigenous Mornington Island Dancers. He has worked in urban, regional and remote environments in Australia and has a particular focus on regional arts and the connection to community.