Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Pretty In Punk

The Bush Theatre is on the tiny side, I know this. But I've never had another person near enough sitting in my lap as I did last night. The place was packed, and having inadvisably chosen to sit on the highest level of seating, I felt rather squeezed in. But I suppose the crush of bodies is fitting given the subject matter of the current production.

Mike Packer's play is about a punk band called tHe dYsFUnCKshOnalZ! (also the name of play, which I'm sure will go down a treat with arts page subs). This particular band burned briefly in the 1970s and then faded from view after a messy post-gig brawl left one of their number, lead singer Billy Abortion, minus a lung. He is now working a shelf-stacker with only a cupboard full of pharmaceuticals for company. But though his screw-the-system attitude still very much intact, when an American credit card company offers the group a substantial sum of money to use their best known song in a commercial, his principles don’t prevent him from taking their cash. Then it transpires there's even more money to be had if they're willing to perform at the launch party gig – the only catch is they'll have to trade their punk garb for logo-covered turtlenecks and sing new, corporate-approved lyrics.

It’s a neat set-up, but once Packer has all the narrative elements in place it begins to feel as if he’s actually not really that sure whether his characters' adherence to the punk credo of their youth is admirable or pathetic. And, as a result, it is difficult to care overly in their predicament. The play also has an awkward ratio of ‘funny’ to ‘not funny’ – in places it’s very entertaining indeed, but there are large chunks that fell flat, whole scenes where you got a sense that you should be laughing, that you were supposed to be sliding of your seat in mirth at the irony of it all, only you weren’t, because the material wasn’t quite strong enough.

Fortunately some inspired performances help to flesh out the occasionally thin writing - Pearce Quigley, as the band’s dishevelled drummer, has this superbly stoned, stuttering delivery that turns nearly every line he utters into a punch line. And Rupert Proctor, as Billy, is so aggressively energetic that during one particularly frantic rant I worried he might pop something vital.

The actors get to perform the band’s songs too, and did so rather impressively, I thought. I also liked the fact that the set design, a collage of faded gig posters, had been extended down the stairwell and into the Bush’s teensy box office area.

As for the play, I suspect it may work better in a West End setting, where its broadness and occasional lapses into sentimentality wouldn’t be so glaring; on the miniscule Bush stage it felt unwieldy, but I could see how it might appeal to a wider audience.

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