Saturday, September 10, 2016

Review: 'punkplay' at the Southwark Playhouse, 9th September 2016

Punks don't fucking rollerskate. See, I was all excited when I first got the invite to Gregory Moses' punkplay, a show which very much sounded my thing. Then I read some promo material that mentioned that the entire play would take place on rollerskates. My expectations plummeted. 

Good plays about punk are thin on the ground, the best coming in the form of small-scale one-man dramas (like Leon Fleming's excellent Sid, soon to return to Above the Arts Theatre). Most of the time you get some chintzy excuse for squeaky stage school warblers to dye their hair green and artfully distress some leather. Yes, I'm looking at you American Idiot. 

Also slightly worrying is that punkplay is about American punk; British punk's dumber older brother. You can't pick holes in The Ramones, Dead Kennedys and Black Flag, but neither can you deny the scene's rapid degeneration into shitty suburban "screw you Mom and Dad! " mall punk like Blink 182, Sum 41 and, yeah, fuckin' Green Day. I'll take your classic snarling, corpse-thin London smack-addict punk any day of week - give me nihilism or give me death.

Mercifully, punkplay quickly proves punk as hell, displaying nice insight into punk's essential paradox: there are no rules, except for this massive conglomeration of unwritten (usually contradictory) rules. punkplay correctly approaches punk as a prism through which its characters define themselves, and comes to very different conclusions. Miraculously, it even eventually justifies the rollerskates.

Set in Reagan-era suburbia, punkplay follows teenagers Duck (Matthew Castle) and Mickey (Sam Perry). Life is stale and shrink-wrapped; studded with syrupy pop; parents threatening to parcel them off to military school; and bullies who punctuate their sentence with "faggot". Duck and Mickey resolve to become punk as fuck: dropping out of school, donning a mohawk/dyeing their hair and not letting their lack of musical talent stop them from forming 'The Zoo Sluts', who sound precisely as you'd expect.

Narrative quickly takes a back seat to a series of surreal vignettes. A beaten-up man in beaten-up leather is wheeled to centre stage where he croaks out a tale of violence on the road. An cough syrup induced dream sequence features the wrinkled head of Ronald Reagan atop a voluptuous girl's body, a talking polar bear and Andres Serrano's Piss Christ. Even the 'normal' scenes are studded with the surreal - clips from a distorted Russian videonasty called Amputee Museum, monologues about revolution via trucker boners and, in the midst of a fight, the two young punks make out under the discoball.

The cut-up style suits the punk aesthetic, the play doing whatever the hell it wants with scant regard for delivering a traditional theatrical experience. That dovetails neatly into the ramshackle aesthetic - props are white objects labelled "PORN", "COUGH SYRUP and so on, costume changes take place on set and, at one point, one of the characters appears to realise the artificial nature of the set and sees the audience watching him.

This really underlines the DIY aesthetic (also evident in the excellent 'zine' programme). The play is studded with tiny little touches that anyone who's lived through this will nod along to, perhaps recognising some element of their own past in these two boys. For my part, during a scene where they burn each other with cigarettes to prove their punk credentials, I found myself ruefully rubbing the cigarette burn scar on the back of my hand, a teenage me having had much the same idea.

Performance-wise, Castle and Perry do a great job of capturing teenage awkwardness and rebellion. Perry in particular is great, approaching Mickey as a tangle of limbs and angular posing. At times he resembles a cartoon character, loping around the stage with barely controlled elasticity. Castle is also excellent, slightly more aggressive and violent, looking like the dictionary definition of a classic punk. Also worthy of note are Jack Sunderland and Aysha Kala's side characters, each of which get powerful moments of emotion in which they shine amidst the chaos.

The cherry on the cake is a fantastic scene in which the analysis turns inwards and punk itself is deconstructed. Jack Sunderland, playing a kind of iconic uber-punk, explains that the scene is dead, that anyone trying to emulate it is a poser living in the past and that the true punks either died or worse, sold out. It's a solid takedown of a movement that was never designed to last beyond a hazy summer, punk's year zero approach giving it a kind of built in self-destruct sequence.

And yet, thirty years on, punk endures. Every fresh crop of teenagers defines their own punk rock, rebelling against the very baby boomers who once shoved safety pins before their noses before settling down in a nice semi-detached two up/two down in the country. What punkplay eventually concludes is that it's not the music you listen to, the clothes you wear or what shit you've smeared into your hair, punk is a state of mind shared by all that choose to participate: a genuine liberation from society's straitjacket.

So yeah, a great show. Check it out.


punkplay is at the Southwark Playhouse until 1st October. Tickets here.

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