‘Punk Rock’ reveals how teen pressures can lead to unexpected consequences

When I was invited to review the play PUNK ROCK at the Odyssey, I was cautious to accept since an evening of headbanging noise was not my idea of a fun time at a theater. But that was an incorrect assumption on my part as the only punk rock music during the play is used between scenes, letting us feel the raw emotions surging through the play’s main character mind as he struggles with a severe case of teen nihilism. Based on playwright Simon Stephens’ experiences as a teacher and inspired by the 1999 Columbine shooting, “Punk Rock” is a truthful tale on how, even when you see the warning signs, sometimes there is nothing another student can do to stop the carnage.

The play centers on seven teens at an English prep school as they tangle with the pressures of love, sex, bullying and college entrance exams. As the need to succeed mounts, the confusion, disconnect and latent savagery simmering beneath the surface is revealed.

And though the action unfolds slowly at first, it’s purposeful rhythm allows us to get to know these individuals so as their worlds collide and tempers flare, it becomes all the more apparent something’s got to give. “The play’s pulsing, driving rhythm, like the music of the title, is what makes it so exciting” says director Lisa James. “The characters are incredibly complex. Each one is hateful and cruel, but also loving and kind. Their hormones are raging, so they’re out of control. It’s a cacophony of emotion.”

The seven students in the electrifying cast of young newcomers features Jacob B. Gibson, Zachary Grant, Nick Marini, Raven Scott, Kenney Selvey, Story Slaughter and Miranda Wynne. They vividly portray each of the intelligent, articulate and accomplished teens who just happen to be the cream of the crop… turning sour.

The action is set in the non-used, upstairs library of the Sixth Form of a fee-paying school in Stockport, England, where these students meet up and congregate during each school day. It’s their own private school lounge where no one else comes in to bother them or curb their behavior towards each other, other than themselves. The environment reflects the isolation most of the students feel in their own lives, mostly at home where none of them seem to be happy or even heard by their parents. There are times, however, where you will shake your head and wonder if everything being said is really the truth, especially when lies are revealed by other students during gossip sessions.

The play opens with new student Lilly (enticing, dark beauty Raven Scott) meeting William (Zachary Scott in a tour-de-force performance) who immediately takes a strong interest in this new, beguiling creature. When he finally decides to ask her out on a date and she turns him down, poor William begins his descent into madness caused by his overwhelming feelings of worthlessness and stupidity, even after Lilly tells him how romantic his invitation was. Surely all of us know how badly the heartbreak feels the first time you ask someone out and get turned down.

Things get worse as the school bully Bennett (charismatic Jacob Gibson) goes on an emotional attack against William and Chadwick (Kenney Selvey), the shy kid who sticks to his books and little else. Perhaps what really irks William is that Bennett has Cissy (lovely Miranda Wynne), the prettiest girl at school, as his girlfriend.

And while the dialogue rarely brings up racial prejudice, the fact that Bennett is black and Cissy is white surely must play into William’s emotional stability descent since Lilly is also black, which causes him to wonder if perhaps that is the only reason she turned him down. But when he finds out Lilly is dating Nicholas (handsome Nick Marini), a fellow white student, William is torn apart realizing it really was just him she was not interested in, and thus the plot thickens.

Cissy’s friend Tanya (girl-next-door Story Slaughter) is a bit heavy-set, something Bennett chastises her for at every opportunity, adding to her lack of self-worth. The fact she has a crush on one of their teachers, even imagining marrying him and bearing his children, is more fuel for the building fire of teen discontent.

But I do not want to reveal the play’s shocking, if not slightly predictable, ending as it is important you do not see it coming even if you have picked up on the cues along the way. Just suffice it to say the last 15 minutes as played out by Zachary Scott as the out-of-control William are enough to earn him a much-deserved Ovation Award next year. But be advised, this is not a play for the weak at heart and is recommended for mature audiences due to its graphic language and violence.

The Los Angeles premiere of “Punk Rock” continues through May 14, 2017 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $25–$34 (reserved seating), with discounted tickets available for students at select performances. Three “Tix for $10” occur on Friday, March 31; Friday, April 28; Wednesday, May 3. Check performance times and purchase tickets at www.OdysseyTheatre.com or at 310-477-2055 ext. 2. Follow Odyssey Theatre on Facebook and Twitter.