The Southwark Playhouse
7 September - 1 October 2016
Tom Hughes, Director of punkplay, talks about his experience growing up and his relation to punk.
Punk is the most curious of phenomena. It's liberating, it's exciting, it's rebellious, it's beautiful. At the same time it's exclusive, it's reactionary, it's ugly, it's reprehensible. Born in 1984, I am way, way too young to be anywhere close to punk, and despite my enthusiasm for the ideology and music, there has never been any shortage of older people telling me that I missed out and that I'm – well – pathetic.
I first discovered what I know as punk in – I think – 1999 or 2000. It started, like it did with many people of my age, with The Offspring and Green Day. It started with their rock, labelled as punk for the mass media, and their lyrics that seemed to speak straight to my teenage self. Not especially punk of course, but that obsession led to a whole raft of bands based all over the world. The Arrivals from Chicago. Brezhnev from Amsterdam. Ye Wiles from Tunbridge Wells. Antimaniax from Graz. These bands sound completely different from one another – and they sound nothing like the original raft of punk bands (Ye Wiles had a violinist, for fuck's sake!) - but what they shared was a common DIY ethic and aesthetic.
These bands would jump into small transit vans and would drive up and down the country (the continent, the world) to play gigs in small venues, in pub function rooms, in leisure centres to groups of punk rock kids who would dance, drink illegally-acquired alcohol and generally go crazy. They would organise their own record labels, run out of garages and front rooms, and book their own tours along a network of small independent promoters. With my brother, I used to organise some of these small gigs in Folkestone – we'd match a touring band with a local band, charge everyone £4 to come in, and then share all the door money between the bands and the PA guy. The bands would sleep in our living room, we'd cook dinner and share food with them. It felt great because we had done it all ourselves, and we had done it because we all loved this music, not because there was any money in it (and, believe me, there wasn't any money in it).
To me, this was our punk rock. And, still, there would be no shortage of people telling us that these bands weren't punk, that they didn't have the same attitude or sound as Sex Pistols, Crass or any other number of classic punk bands. But, to me, this misses the point. Punk isn't about a particular sound or image or era – it's about feeling uncomfortable with the inexorable drive of capitalism, with that demand to fit in and to get a real job, and it's about standing against that to imagine and to create your own strange and individual world in which you belong with like-minded souls, wherever you are.
Something that I often noticed about punk rock shows is that they are full of the most awkward people you could ever wish to meet. People who can't make eye contact with you, and people who have no casual chat whatsoever. People who will move on to become computer programmers and engineers, mathematicians and teachers. These people were and are resolutely not cool – the original punk movement was cool (which is possibly why the survivors of this movement look down upon them). But they still feel discomfort and ill-at-ease, they still need somewhere to belong, and so they form their own community. These are the kids who populate punkplay – not the ultra-cool fashion punks, but the average kids who are trying and failing to be punk much like everybody else of their generation.
And, in 2016, it's particularly difficult to be punk in any sense. Capitalism is at an all-time peak, and kids are talking about career options from a far too young age. There's much less room for rebellion and for doing something for its own sake or for its own love. In the Spring, I visited the Punker Bunker in Brighton – one of the last remaining punk rock record shops, a basement of records, T-shirts and pre-owned CDs, run by Buz, a 50-something skater. The shop was empty – he described to me how difficult business is, how there are fewer and fewer kids coming in. He told me how he had bought tea and breakfast that morning and it cost him a tenner (“that's my food budget for a week!”), and he talked about how property developers were breathing down the neck of his shop (much like they already encroached upon almost all of the punk rock venues in Brighton, much like they've encroached upon the music venues and clubs in London).
But to me, theatre, despite its reputation as the most bourgeois and least punk rock art form of all time, has great potential to be punk rock in 2016. It also, of course, has great potential to be cynical, lifeless and a great instrument of capitalism. Like music, the difference lies in the ambition and the love of the people who make and perform it. In punkplay, much like in several other shows big and small across the country, the cast go out there every night, not knowing what's going to happen, not knowing if they'll get to the end unscathed or not, but still they play their hearts out because they love it. They experience all the heartbreak and joy and fear and exhilaration that goes with that risk. And, eventually, they soar: this cast tell a tale of misfits with their full hearts and souls and, for the duration of one performance, there couldn't be anything more punk. In my opinion, anyway.
punkplay is a riot of a play told at breakneck pace with a killer soundtrack. It’s a coming-of-age story about subcultures, friendship and not-fitting-in – all on rollerskates.
There’s Duck and there’s Mickey. They’re the kids of America and it’s the 80s apocalypse. They hate their parents and there’s no point in algebra. They’re grabbing at this thing called life: guitars, girls, love, fury, heartbreak and noise noise noise. Punk is their escape from suburbia and it’s like nothing they have ever heard. It’s fast – it’s alive – it’s already dead.
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