REVIEW: Punkplay, Southwark Playhouse ✭✭✭✭

Last Updated on 10th September 2016

Punkplay at Southwark Playhouse

Southwark Playhouse
9 September 2016
4 Stars
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Punk is not what it used to be. Or rather, as it is served up in this concoction – a l’americain – it takes us into a retro ghetto of suburban drudgery from The Awful Eighties and a point geographically located somewhere nearer to Maine than Florida on the eastern seaboard of the USA. We spend an hour and a half in the company of two abysmally educated and pretty obtuse teenage boys (lanky Matthew Castle and aggressive Sam Perry), whose overheated exchanges form the fragmentary foundations of this helter-skelter parade of ‘moments adolescents’. There is an older male (Jack Sunderland) and a girl (Aysha Kala) who pop up in a number of guises, intermittently connecting these very disconnected young beasts from the zoo that is always waiting for them beyond the doors of the dull, suburban hutch they occupy (design by Cecile Tremolieres). Every scene shakes with the fervid, erratic energy of thwarted youth, perfectly captured in Tom Hughes’ confident and eclectic production.

Punkplay at Southwark PlayhouseGregory S. Moss is an ingenious playwright who has created a sequence of tableaux, each of which can be understood as a ‘cover’ of a different musical ‘track’ on a personalised cassette tape, of the kind typically compiled for each other by friends in the long-lost 1980s. The scenes are, in fact, ‘riffs’ on actual recordings, and the anoraks amongst us (Hand up! – Guilty!) will have huge fun in tracing their origins, analysing the author’s creation as if it were the product of some Walmart T S Eliot. In the days before ‘playlists’ could be digitally ex- and imported at the touch of screen, such artifacts could only come into existence through the laborious fishing out of gramophone records, dropping the playing arm onto the right groove, so the needle picked up – through its characteristic surface hiss and crackle – the requisite number, at the end of which, the arm would be again manually operated, and the tape stopped, before moving onto the next item. Immense fun! Entire weekends could be devoted to this, if desired.

This same sense of wearisome, fiddly effort pervades every moment of transition between the scenes. Similarly, when the track is up and running, it can glide along with the surprisingly smooth ease of the actors’ rollerskates (and other wheels) that get them from place to place in this post-‘Xanadu’ world.

No respectable bourgeois interior of the epoch would be complete without its beautifully hung curtains (would Yankees calls them ‘drapes’?), and indeed this one has them aplenty. They hang, majestically dominating the centre of the stage in all their floor-to-ceiling glory. We wait, the audience, for things to emerge from behind them; and they do. We wait, still expectant, for the magical moment when they part; and they do. And their opening reveals precisely what we would expect them to disclose, and it is wonderful. The actors get to do what any drama about the punk ‘Bewegung’ requires them to do, and they do it very entertainingly. No, I am not going to spoil your thrill by revealing every last detail. It’s just great. All the details are right here, they’re echt. Even the zine-style programmes.

Punkplay at Southwark Playhouse

Did I just use another German word? Well, maybe that’s because there are loads and loads of Teutonic influences in this carefully thought-out, artfully pieced together analysis of a bygone throwback. The 80s after-burn of ‘le style punk’ in the US is here shown to be – amongst other things – an Expressionistic ruse. As we clatter on through this 40th anniversary year of the ‘Aufbruch im Westen’ of the unwashed kids in safety-pin jewellery, severely badly cut dyed hair, and rag-bag, shrunk-to-not-fit couture (zips not optional), we are seeing a whole fashion spring up in anarcho-revivalism. The return of the mohawk. Amphetamines-R-Us.

Does anyone reading this regret their punk past? Does anyone reading wish they had a punk past to regret? Well, I grew up in a town rather like the one depicted here, whose single distinguishing event was that one forgotten week, some friends of mine went to the usual pop concert at the local sports centre, returning to school the next day to report that they had noticed one band in particular that was ‘not very good’ and went by the name of The Jam. One week later, we had our own ‘punk’ band: The Royal Family (still touring).

The rest, as they say, is part of The History of the Degeneration of Western Civilisation. Nicely, America was not at the forefront of this game, but had to play catch up with this Brit mode (as it was also to do on Broadway when it came under attack from those wild troublemakers, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Macintosh). One could go on saying any number of interesting things about this revolution in aesthetics, but to my mind, one of the greatest defining features of punk was that it always knew exactly how and when to stop.


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