Friends are neglectful. Friends are unkind. Friends don’t always differentiate between the truth that’s necessary to hear and the truth that might do lasting damage if spoken. Friends steal from each other: lovers, music, clothes. Friends let you down. Not all friends. Bad friends.
Tom Hughes, who directed punkplay, is a friend of mine, quite a good one, which meant I watched the first half wondering how to tell him that I hadn’t much enjoyed it. It’s not you, it’s me: I’m the grinch who hates theatre this week. It’s not you, it’s the play: written by Gregory Moss, it focuses on two adolescent boys whose gawky crushes and encounters with porn and trips to the record store generated not nostalgia but relief that I don’t have to consort with teenage boys any more. It’s not you, it’s the pinched conditions under which fringe theatre is made, limiting and abrading it. That could be just right for a play inspired by punk, if only it communicated as disruptive energy rather than roughness and flaw.
But that’s part of the point of punkplay: to challenge preconceptions attached to the word, not least the idea that punk co-existed with our modern age of instantaneity, reaching the wider public at the speed of a thrashed chord. (Lavinia Greenlaw’s memoir The Importance of Music to Girls is brilliant on how long it took for punk to break out of its London enclave and impact on even the next county, Essex.) It’s set in the mid-80s, in small-town America: an open invitation to Hughes and his designer, Cecile Tremolieres, to subvert ideas of authenticity, which they do by creating a playing space where disco meets grunge. Hughes’s production becomes engrossing when the curtain is pulled on the back half of the stage, revealing the lametta-tangled basement space where the two boys play music, fight and open their eyes to the politics of their times. And Moss’s play becomes interesting when the legacy of punk becomes an open question, and the boys’ attempt to build a friendship from its assumed incandescence begins to unravel.
The pairing of Mickey and Duck – along with the rollerskates worn throughout and the cartoon names conveying the infantilising effect of American popular culture – starts out cutesy and fumbling but gradually becomes jagged, hurt piling upon hurt. Duck reveals himself to be a bad friend: a friend who gangs up with the town bully to laugh at Mickey, who carelessly steals the girl he knows Mickey adores, who smashes Mickey’s records because they don’t conform to his idea of cool. Punk isn’t a portal for Duck, it’s a set of handcuffs, worn willingly and with misplaced pride. Seething beneath the surface of the play is Moss’s – and Hughes’s – awareness of the similarity between those purportedly counter-cultural handcuffs and the straitjacket of conservative politics, the capitalist urges that denatured punk even at its birth. (Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Music Boys is brilliant on the disappointment of watching punk sell out, of witnessing the shameless opportunism with which Malcolm McLaren courted media attention.) Duck isn’t the only bad friend here: punk is a bad friend, too.
Except. Except. Moss knows, Hughes knows, I know that music can change everything. In embracing that fact, punkplay transforms and becomes vital, heart-pumping, dizzyingly special. Mickey puts on a record and the secret message it communicates to him is one I’ve heard, Hughes has heard, Moss has heard, and I’m guessing, if you’re reading this, you’ve heard. It’s a message of standing your own ground and walking your own road, of taking the rough path and the secret alleyways and going the long way round. It’s a reminder that music – not all music: DIY music, independent music, be it Sarah records or Kendrick Lamar – is a good friend, a best friend; always there, whenever you need it, whispering secret truths, revealing the world, giving you strength to keep moving, keep resisting.
punkplay is on until 1st October 2016 at Southwark Playhouse. Click here for more details.