What to say about ... Punk Rock by Simon Stephens

Does this new play about A-level students chalk up top marks from the critics? Or is it double detention for the prolific playwright?

A new play about young people? Marvellous! The internet generation! More relevant than ever! Just the sort of thing to slot into one's next conversation on contemporary theatre. Let's just hope it isn't awful. Fortunately for well-meaning theatre types everywhere, Punk Rock isn't.

Indeed, the critics' favourable verdicts on Simon Stephens's new play are so closely aligned that they might as well have gone home with each other's notebooks. A "cracking new play ... superbly acted" is Benedict Nightingale's opinion in the Times. A "superb new play ... a cracking young cast ... the new regime at Hammersmith has got off to a tremendous start," gushes Charles Spencer in the Telegraph. And it is "a remarkable new play" according to Michael Billington, who agrees that it "gets a new regime at the Lyric off to a cracking start".

So, you'll want to know, what is so crackingly superb about Punk Rock? Well, set in the library of a modern Stockport grammar school, it tells the story of various angsty adolescents as they flirt, bully and pontificate their way through their A-level mocks. The result is a play that is "powerful and compelling" according to the Independent's Michael Coveney, and which "evokes the twilight world of the teenager with scary vividness," in the mind of Charles Spencer, who himself remembers "those turbulent years of embarrassment and self-doubt, combined with the ache of unreturned love and lust". (No shuddering at the back, please.)

Strong direction from Sarah Frankcom seems largely to be thanked here, as well as excellent performances from the cast – especially the universally admired newcomer Tom Sturridge as William, the lead. "You believe totally in these pupils as people," applauds Billington. Spencer agrees: "The mostly young audience was hooked throughout, watching their own lives reflected back at them. They even broke into applause and cheers when one of the characters stood up to a bully."

And yet there remains a whiff of something rather worthy in all this. There are also quite a lot of quibbles to be heard for a play that earns four stars from almost all the critics. So if you are younger than the playwright (he's in his late 30s), then there are many free-thinker points to be earned from finding faults with Punk Rock.

Nightingale, for example, feels that "Stephens doesn't prepare for [the play's closing atrocity] too well" (ie it's a bit far-fetched). Coveney and Billington both take issue with some of the characters' cris de coeur, citing "a defence of the young which sounds too like an authorial statement" to Billington's ears, and "horribly like David Cameron" to Coveney's.

Most damning, however, is a criticism that may already have occurred to a discerning person such as yourself: the whole premise of Punk Rock is, well, just a bit familiar. The critics spot various possible influences such as The History Boys, Another Country, Lord of the Flies, Elephant, If…, Skins and The Catcher in the Rye. Which are debts of near Treasury proportions. Even the besotted Spencer concedes that "Stephens is hardly treading original ground". Henry Hitchings, the Evening Standard's three-star party pooper, thinks "Punk Rock feels derivative" and asks, "Does it have something new to say about teenage dislocation?" Even if it didn't, dear reader, would you care?

Do say: I spent seven years as a teenager, you know.

Don't say: What are they complaining about? I thought A-levels were easy these days?

Reviews reviewed: What a splendidly convincing portrait of a world I can't remember very much about!


Leo Benedictus

The GuardianTramp

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