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theatre review

Cameron Laurie, Ruth Goodwin, James Graham, Hallie Seline, Tim Dowler-Coltman, Kristen Zaza and Andrew Pimento in the Howland Company's staging of Punk Rock.Neil Silcox


2.5 out of 4 stars
  • Title: Punk Rock
  • Written by: Simon Stephens
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Gregory Prest
  • Actors: Cameron Laurie, Ruth Goodwin
  • Company: The Howland Company
  • Venue: Streetcar Crowsnest
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to April 14, 2018

Spoiler alert: It’s impossible to seriously discuss the success or failure of Punk Rock without noting that it climaxes in a school shooting.

So I’m not going to avoid mentioning or only refer obliquely to the most sensational and dramatically overwhelming part of British playwright’s Simon Stephens’s 2009 play, now getting – at times – a riveting Toronto premiere from the Howland Company.

Punk Rock begins like most Hollywood movies set in high schools: with the arrival of a newcomer who upsets the established social order among cliques. In this case, it’s Lilly (Ruth Goodwin), joining the sixth form at a grammar school in a town just outside Manchester in the 2000s. (Canadian translation: These are students on the cusp of graduating from a second-tier private school.)

William (Cameron Laurie), a talkative fabulist not without charm, is entranced by Lilly, but it is Nicholas (Tim Dowler-Coltman), a sensitive jock, who catches her romantic attention.

Bennett (James Graham), the class bully, is happy to have a new audience for his cruel acts – and, indeed, begins to amp up his torture of the math nerd, Chadwick (Andrew Pimento). Meanwhile, the other two girls in Lilly’s class (Hallie Seline and Kristen Zaza) suss her out as a friend and rival.

While the set-up is familiar, it’s the unusual cadences of what Stephens (Heisenberg, Harper Regan) has written give Punk Rock a fresh tone.

You’re never quite sure where any of his scenes are going – whether it’s a conversation between William and Lilly that veers from flirting to fighting to friendship, or the chilling scenes in which Bennett lurches from merely annoying to frighteningly aggressive and back again in unpredictable ways. (Alas, the way in which Stephens elicits a little sympathy from the audience for his 17-year-old bully is one of the few elements that does end up feeling simplistic.)

While school shootings have become depressingly common in the United States, Britain has never seen one of the sort playwright Simon Stephens has subjected his country to here.Neil Silcox

The Howland Company, which has fought for years for the rights to stage the play, is an ensemble of young actors who have had some success producing at the Toronto Fringe Festival and have now been taken under the wing of Crow’s Theatre.

There’s really fine acting from some of them, who use their natural accents rather than putting on British ones, in director Gregory Prest’s production. Other performances could use some fine tuning and deeper diving.

The relationship between William and Lilly is the most complex – and Laurie and Goodwin are excellent in their early scenes, roaming through all the textures of the truthful writing. As Nicholas, meanwhile, Dowler-Coltman again proves in a quietly assured performance that he’s a rising stage star, suggesting shades to his character well beyond what the script gives him.

Halfway through the play, however, Punk Rock’s subtlety starts to be undercut by speeches that seem to be coming straight from the playwright – before the school-shooting scenario completely bulldozes it.

And this is really where we have to get into the “relevance” of the play.

Punk Rock’s subtlety becomes undercut by speeches that seem to come straight from the playwright.Neil Silcox

Since Howland chose to stage it, the play has, obviously, gained an extra veneer of relevance with the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

But the aftermath of that tragedy, especially the reinvigoration of the gun-control movement by Parkland survivors, has almost fatally undercut Punk Rock with its urgency.

While I’m not tremendously hopeful that the United States will ever enact the legislation the school’s #NeverAgain movement is asking for, I am encouraged by the fact that, for the first time I can remember, the names of survivors – particularly the inspirational Emma Gonzalez – are on the tip of my tongue rather than the name of the shooter.

Punk Rock, at this moment, feels like an unwelcome throwback to how such events were talked about in the wake of the Columbine massacre – when the psychology of shooters was endlessly dissected in media coverage, turning them into celebrities.

Stephens has more time for the shooter he’s dreamed up than any of the victims or survivors of his rampage. The audience is left to ponder: Was this individual lashing out as a “lovesick teen,” as another recent real-life school shooter was sickeningly described in a headline? Did the bullying he witnessed and suffered push him over the edge? Or did some psychological problem, long buried, simply start to surface?

Punk Rock, at this moment, feels like an unwelcome throwback to how such events were talked about in the wake of the Columbine massacre.Neil Silcox

In the end, these types of questions feel like part of the problem rather than part of the solution on this side of the ocean.

While school shootings have become depressingly common in the United States – and Canada has seen its fair share of them, most recently in La Loche, Sask., two years ago – Britain has never seen one of the sort Stephens has subjected his country to here.

According to the BBC, there have only been three lone-gunman mass shootings in the United Kingdom – and the only one involving a school was the 1996 Dunblane massacre, in which a 43-year-old killed 16 primary-school children and their teacher.

That tragedy led to the banning of most handguns in Britain – so, in the end, Punk Rock is a fantasy. And its plot unwittingly makes a case against gun control, suggesting that a British teen could easily find a handgun if he really wanted to – exactly what the National Rifle Association and its supporters would like us to believe.

British playwrights can afford to fantasize – but over here, at this particular moment, you can’t help walking out of Punk Rock feeling the play is nothing more than a dramatically compelling and perhaps dangerous misrepresentation.