We all know one type of drummer – the kind capable of amazing fills, stealing certain passages and sections. The main rhythms however, sometime feel off or out-of-sync with the rest of the performers – one bar is amazing while the remaining three from the four bar passage simply don’t fit the bill. Punkplay, currently showing at the Southwark, is a performance cut from that same cloth as those drummers – flashes and fills of brilliance yet hampered by segments and sections that fell short.
The performance revolves around two teens, obsessed with punk, fetishizing over its significance in an age where it is already well on the way to decline. Beyond this, they grapple with the usual cavalcade of topics – sex, age, identity, destructive familial identity. We roll (literally, as the actors are almost permanently affixed to rollerblades) from one issue to the next, slowly conjuring up conflict before perhaps one of the most exciting yet leftfield endings a show can feasibly muster. Writer Gregory Moss has swaddled the show in a dripping, punk anti-conformity that comes across as almost sickly sweet, especially in the near impenetrable heat of Southwark’s smaller space.
The key flaw in the show lies somewhat in its pacing, trundling between episodic stabs while attempting to establish a nuanced timbre among the two central characters – Duck and Mickey, in fairly convincing performances by Matthew Castle and Sam Perry. The issue here was also that, with so much going on, it never feels possible to come to terms with their character transformations. Director Tom Hughes nevertheless uses the rollerblade gimmick for considerably satisfying effect – especially using forward or backward momentum to establish emotional undertone or character reaction.
The whole show exists as some form of apocalyptically claustrophobic examination of a dwindling and destructive friendship, set against the backdrop of a Reagan administration laced with heady giddiness. The set design here works in some sections with gusto – particularly the constellation of disco balls that hang above the performers. Aside from this the aesthetic almost exists with anachronistic glee – contrasting the creamy, Battenberg-esque environment with the raw punk-tribute that exists beyond.
Punkplay is a rare breed of modern London theatre and for that cannot be faulted, but it is significantly flawed in other areas of execution. Its commitment to nonconformity feels sometimes lacklustre, and as the audience are barraged with image after image and idea after idea, there is little time to actually engage with the characters or their genuine emotional arcs.