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BWW Review: PUNKPLAY, Southwark Playhouse, 10 September 2016

The single-stapled programme is a pastiche, albeit a touching tribute, to the punk bible Sniffin' Glue, but punkplay is not set in that first wave of Punk, the one that came from the urban squalor of a fast post-industrialising England, but its 80s revival, when Punk's defining attitudes found a home in suburban USA and led to grunge, to garage bands and, to Nirvana and their imitators.

Sure, it's countercultural and it's angry too, but the anarchy was directed towards teachers and parents and not, as the Sex Pistols so boldly asserted, The Queen. There's certainly as much Beavis and Butthead and a little Y Tu Mama Tambien too in this coming-of-age drama, which threatens to say something important but never quite follows through.

Having had the traditional adolescent row with his father, Duck (Matthew Castle, all bottled-up testosterone and inchoate anger) squats in his best pal's bedroom. Mickey (Sam Perry, gawky and innocent, a bit Big Bang Theory) soon adds a mohican haircut to his list of gifts to Duck and the two are reading out (and rejecting as lame - natch) possible band names for their guitar and drums combo, which is heavy on attitude and short on skill.

There's a gothy girl (Aysha Kala) lurking about, whom the boys both lust after and fear in roughly equal measure (as all teen boys do) and an older punk (Jack Sunderland) who, wouldn't you know, just treats them like a bad father and adds to their growing ennui. With no internet to link to the world (this is the 80s when it really was possible to isolate oneself in a room and close out the world) and, in a country where bars are only available to over-21s, nowhere else to go, the boys stew, waiting for something to happen. (One of many aspects of "Smells Like Teen Spirit's" genius was to locate its iconic video in a High School gymnasium - a reminder that not everyone is free in the Land of the Free.)

Truth be told, all this has been said and done before and, if that's all there was to punkplay, the 90 minutes all-through would drag a bit, but it's enlivened by some wonderful dream sequences, the best of which has Ronald Reagan as an alluring cheerleader, the adult world's temptations and contradictions tantalisingly just out of reach, the teenager's desire to enjoy an adult's opportunities whilst retaining a child's responsibilities, brought to life.

Of course, those responsibilities eventually supervene and the time comes to put way childish things - literally and poignantly done in this production - and grow up... into what exactly? These lads will be middle-aged now, white and almost certainly working-class in an America that offers them the military as a career (it's already Duck's choice) but not much else. The anger and the urge to locate oneself in the counterculture hasn't gone away for lads like these, as it often does with the more middle-class teenage rebels who find compensations in front lawns, comprehensive health insurance and big cars. Now the Ducks and Mickeys, in a different kind of impotent barely suppressed rage, are banging the drum not for Punk, but for Trump.

punkplay continues at Southwark Playhouse until 1 October.


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From This Author Gary Naylor