Review: Punk Rock (The Howland Company)

“Stunning” and “relevant” Punk Rock takes to the Toronto stage

The Howland Company’s production of Simon Stephen’s Punk Rock holds incredible power. The material itself is already strong, and the expert cast and creative team just pushes it that much further. It is quite literally one of the most “stunning” plays I’ve personally ever seen (second to Buddies In Bad Times’ 2011 production of The Normal Heart). Consider all the school shootings that have happened in the last year, and the stakes in Punk Rock couldn’t be higher.

Every scene of Punk Rock takes place in a disorganized British prep school library: think plastic chairs, old books and crumpled papers strewn every which way. Exams are just around the corner, and these kids have never been more stressed. A group of uniform-clad students zip in and out as they study for their finals and kill time between classes. Fights break out, people get hurt and it all mounts to a devastating crescendo.

The atmosphere is dark and eerie from the very beginning. Lighting designer Jareth Li brings a depressive bleakness you would only find in a high school library. The second the lights come up, you can feel deep in your gut, that something bad is going to happen.

The talent in this show is off the charts, and the casting is right on the money. Andrew Pimento (who plays Chadwick, the nerd of the bunch) manages to steal every scene he’s in. He emanates a profound sadness which kept my eyes locked on him throughout. Every part of him is living this character. It’s awesome to watch.

Cameron Laurie as William Carlisle is another stand out for me. When his character dips from a friendly, well-read prep school student into a downward spiral of desperation, you can actually see that scary, detached look in his eyes that usually comes with episodes of psychosis. I’ll also mention Kristen Zaza (Tanya), who gives the performance of a lifetime, particularly in a scene when her character is huddling under the library table and literally shaking. Her sobs are haunting. I’ll always remember the moment when she and William finally embrace, with his gun resting on her back.

The show was long, but my attention never waned. The lines are delivered at a rapid-fire pace, making the scenes feel compact and quick. It was also an interesting choice by director Gregory Prest to have the actors keep their Canadian accents, yet still adopt the general rhythm and inflection of the British accent which the play was originally intended to be read in, I’m sure. It totally worked.

It’s the day after as I write this review, and there are some moments from the show that are still so clearly etched in my mind. I usually have to write copious notes after I see a show in order to remember it, but I didn’t feel like I had to in this case. Particular moments like Chadwick (Andrew Pimento)’s explosive monologue about the world ending, or Cissy (Hallie Seline)’s cathartic breakdown as she reads her report card, are unforgettable to me because they felt so authentic, and that’s a direct compliment to the cast.

Though this show was written in 2009, it has never been more relevant. With all the protests and school-wide walk-outs happening all over the states, the reality of Punk Rock hits the audience extra hard. At one moment in the play, Bennett (James Graham) asks Chadwick to “tell him something stunning.” Punk Rock is something stunning.

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Photo of Tim Dowler-Coltman by Neil Silcox.