JOYCE MCMILLAN on PUNK ROCK at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and GOOD WITH PEOPLE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 30.9.10
Punk Rock 3 stars ***
Good With People 4 stars ****
THERE’S A THEORY – a difficult one to dispute – that all human societies are to some extent founded on violence; that without the willingness to suppress armed rebellion, punish crime, and police borders, no city can rise, or state start to function. Even if violence is an unavoidable part of human society, though, we tend to be shocked almost beyond words when it escapes its usual boundaries. In theatre, audiences still tend to gasp in distress at the moment in a domestic drama when a man hits his wife; the idea of the home as a safe haven dies hard.
As for school shootings of the kind associated with the Columbine massacre in the United States, they exert a uniquely horrifying grip on the imagination; not because anyone imagines that schools are non-violent places – bullying happens in every kind of educational institution – but because we expect that violence to have its limits, familiar, domestic, and non-lethal.
And it’s this moment when ordinary school violence shades into something much more shocking that seems to fascinate the playwright Simon Stephens, whose flawed-but-interesting drama Punk Rock appears at the King’s in Edinburgh this week. The school he portrays – like the one in Alan Bennett’s History Boys – is a strangely retro-looking grammar school in a northern English city, supposedly contemporary, but somehow trapped in what looks like the 1980’s. This school, though, is co-educational, with boys and girls sparring and dating and having sex, in the usual maelstrom of teenage insecurities and rivaliries; until one boy, a brainy but troubled lad called William, begins to lose the place completely, plunging the characters into a tragi-comic death scene as implauslble as it is terrifying.
The play’s problem, though, is that it just as it lacks any well-worked-out relationship with the Punk Rock phenomenon conjured up in its title, so it lacks the structural focus on William’s terrible journey that might have begun to make sense of it. He is not the most bullied boy in the group, nor the poorest, nor – despite his own fantasies – the most unfortunate in his family background; and while his sexual rejection by gorgeous new-girl Lily may seem to tip him over the edge, he specifically denies that it was the cause of his final murderous rampage, which he says he carried out “because he could”.
Stephens’s play is performed with terrific commitment by a fine young cast, with Laura Pyper superb as Lilly, Edward Franklin threatening to steal the show as troubled bullyBennett, and the whole text speaking volumes about the brutal casual sexism implicit in post-modern “lad” culture. It attracts an excited young audience, who thrill to every swear-word; and it certainly offers rich material for post-show classroom discussions, on a whole range of topics. In the end, though, all it seems to say is that violence of thought and deed is indivisible, and always begets violence. Which is true, up to a point; but still doesn’t capture the moment that should be at the centre of this play, the moment when ordinary, survivable brutalism shades into lethal murderous intent, and changes everything, forever.
For a truly elegant, powerful and purposeful drama about the impact of violence on everyday life, though, there’s one place to be in Scotland this week; and that’s at the lunchtime Play, Pie and Pint show at Oran Mor, which this week premieres a brilliant new 50-minute play by David Harrower, called Good With People. Set in a hotel in a once-elegant Clyde holiday resort, the play describes a tense two-day encounter between middle-aged, married Helen – who works behind the hotel’s reception desk, neat and sexy in black skirt, heels, and tourist-board jacket – and twentysomething Evan, who once bullied Helen’s son to despair when they were at school together, and who now returns to the town for a brief celebration of his parents’ remarriage, following a messy divorce.
In this terrific short dialogue – performed with electrifying power by Blythe Duff and Andrew Scott-Ramsay – Harrower first acknowledges the connection between violence and sex, making the air between the two characters crackle with more erotic tension than I’ve seen on a Scottish stage in years. Then he uses that tension – that alternating current of intense potential joy and pain – to crack open Scottish small-town society, exposing the miserable mesh of petty snobberies that can define whole lives, of small decencies that go unnoticed, of dreams put on the back burner, and of long-term damage inflicted by forces – and forms of organised violence – far beyond the control of local people; for this town is Helensburgh, and it has been changed forever by the coming of the huge Faslane nuclear base just up the road.
In this last of five autumn co-productions between A Play, A Pie And A Pint and Paines Plough, George Perrin directs with impressive grace and flair, moving the characters fluently through a series of five short scenes, using the sharp tolling of a town bell to hold the characters in tension while time passes, and their eye contact intensifies. And the whole experience comes as a sharp reminder of how, in the years since devolution, playwrights based in Scotland have tended to leave the specifics of Scottish life to the politicians, and to paint on a wider canvas; and of what rich dividends it can pay, when they focus once again on the pain, the potential, and the deep, deep resonances of the society on their doorstep.
Punk Rock at the King’s Theatre, Edingurgh, until Saturday. Good With People at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday; and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 19-23 October.