Magpie Drama presented Simon Stephen’s play Punk Rock tonight.
They are building quite a reputation for putting on gritty drama to the amateur stage – part of their remit of Bringing National Theatre to Local Audiences, and this was no exception.
The set was simple but effective – a few chairs, a couple of tables and book cases, a sofa – but gave the immediate impression of a 6th form centre, although the sofa was in much better condition than I remember! A clever change in lighting for the last scene changed one area from being the 6th form centre to another location entirely. (No spoilers – go and see the play!) And this is another trademark of Magpie Drama – they make a lot with very little set and few props, instead drawing you in to the characters.
In the space of a couple of hours, they showed the changing dynamics of a group of 17 year olds (6th formers in the old money or year 12) at a school in the Stockport area during the autumn of 2009. These are the post-punk generation, parents were growing up during the punk rock of the mid 1970s and the Thatcher years of the 1980s. (Talkin’ about my generation!)
In terms of cast, this is the biggest production with seven principals and a couple of supporting parts.
This is not a comfortable play to watch – like Neville’s Island and Dumb Show (previous Magpie Drama productions) – the focus is very much on the motivations and mental state of the principal characters. The language was excessively strong, though I think that is down to the writer. Given a short time to develop the characters and their relationships, the cast started from broad stereotypes (the bully, the bullied, the new girl, the jock …) but then built up complex characters. There were times of humour – clever lines that temporarily inverted relationships – but this is not a comedy. Shakespearean tragedy, maybe. You could see where it was heading, but there were at least a couple of outcomes, and they set up for either, so that when the denouement happened, it still had the surprise (dare I say, shock). Although a very different play, I was reminded of a production of The Wonderful World of Dissocia I saw a couple of years ago in Huddersfield, although that had a lot more hot dogs (I remember raiding local Sainsbury’s for hot dog and buns for the stage manager!)
The opening was a two hander, with characters wandering onto an open stage. Personal preference here: I like open stages, and short overtures , and although they didn’t do this, I think that having actors milling about before the formal start helps with engagement; conversely closed tabs and a long overture (a pu-pu platter of tunes as the man in Drowsy Chaperone would say) may help the audience to quiet down (although they do tend to talk through the overture!) The passing of time was simply but effective shown by the characters writing the date on a chalkboard.
The cast were strong – not noticeably stumbling over a quite wordy script, and with good sense of timing, and received a standing ovation.
One nice feature was after the play, the cast and crew came back onstage to run a question and answer session about the play, and about their characters. I understand that this play is used as a set text for AS drama. I think I got off lightly studying Juno and the Paycock in the light of “The Troubles”. The cast were very eloquent about their characters, the motivations behind their portrayals, and indeed how much of Simon Stephen’s soul was put into one of the characters. It was interesting to hear how people were able to draw on their own school experience – and frankly, one reason I found the play so uncomfortable was the reminder of bullying that I was aware of during my school days.
If you want a laugh a minute, there are lots of local groups putting on farces and comedy. But for thought provoking, take a look at Magpie Drama.