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THEATER REVIEW: ion’s “Punk Rock”

Put together seven British sixth-formers, already confused by hormones and the desperate need to belong, add family and/or personality issues, upcoming exams and university placement worries, and you might get something like Simon Stephens’ explosive “Punk Rock.”

“Punk Rock” plays through March 9 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX, directed by Glenn Paris. This is the play’s second U.S production.

The place is the library of a private school in Stockport (near Manchester), where new student Lilly Cahill (Lizzie Morse) meets six classmates who regularly hang out there in order to escape adult supervision and younger students.

Like most teens, these kids swagger, snark and engage in the casual cruelty of the young, all to cover the pangs of uncertainty and fear that they won’t measure up.

Bennett Francis (Benjamin Cole), for example, is the group bully; his target is supersmart scholarship student Chadwick Meade (David Ahmadian). Their scenes are painful reminders of what was so awful about those years.

Nicholas Chatman (Ryan Casselman), the jock of the group, who immediately picks up on Lilly, much to the surprise of mouthy William Carlisle (J. Tyler Jones), whose stories match his need to impress but don’t always connect with reality.

Cissy Franks (Samantha Littleford) both hangs out with and is frequently embarrassed and/or horrified by Bennett. And plus-sized Tanya Gleason (Samantha Vesco), whose weight will likely keep her from society’s center stage, has designs on (or at least daydreams about) one of her teachers.

That Stephens was a teacher shows in the quality of the dialogue, which transports the audience back to those awful years with a verisimilitude not found often enough in plays about this age group. It’s reminiscent of – and just as good as – both Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” and “Spring Awakening,” though much darker than the former, and music here is only used between scenes.

These characters represent types we all knew in high school. We also knew those pressures that could cause any of them to flip out. One of my classmates committed suicide, and that was back in the Jurassic. Something equally tragic will happen here.

This is an outstanding cast, sensitively directed by Paris. Jones has the intensity and lean look needed for William; Cole’s commanding presence is just right for the bully Bennett; Casselman (recently seen at OnStage) continues his fine work as Nicholas; Ahmadian gives a sensitive portrayal of Chadwick.

Littleford is convincing as Cissy; Morse gives a nicely textured performance as Lilly; and Vesco is excellent as Tanya.

“Punk Rock” shows again why ion is the go-to place for edgy and thought-provoking theater.

The details

“Punk Rock” plays through March 9 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX, 3704 Sixth Ave., Hillcrest.

Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 and 8 pm.

Tickets: (619) 600-5020 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.