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Punk Rock and Bassett

by on 22 February 2019

Complex Comment, Powerful Impact

Punk Rock and Bassett

by Simon Stephens and James Graham

Richmond Shakespeare Society Young Actors Company at The Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham until 24th February 2019, then on tour to Malta in July.

Review by Ian Nethersell

Adolescence is a difficult time. We struggle to know who we are and to find our place in the world. There are so many things to understand and think about whilst being influenced by peer groups, looking up to those we idolise, wanting to fit in and being constrained and controlled by the state. Indoctrination and manipulation can be a subtle and passive process as well as ‘in your face’.

James Graham explores this in his play, Bassett, set in the classroom of a modern comprehensive in the town of Wootton Bassett, through the eyes of a Year 11 class who have been locked in during lunch break for ridiculing and teasing the teacher. Needless to say, this theatrical device is a strong metaphor and allows a microcosm of society to be explored in its contrivance.

The themes of this play, which although billed second in the programme’s title was actually performed first for reasons which became apparent later on, are as relevant today as in 2011 when it was first performed as part of The National Theatre’s Connections Festival. It also explores more universal themes of love, hate, ‘who am I?’ and ‘what do I believe?’


We meet the young characters as very developed and believable individuals, a real credit to the skills of the director and the work put in by the cast. The plot is driven by the character of Leo, whose anguish at not being able to attend the repatriation of a young soldier who went to the school a few years before, comes out through anger and conflict with the other teenagers. Adam Green was able to maintain the level of emotion and kept a good pace throughout. We also meet Kelly who claims that she had a relationship with the soldier, and we are never sure if this is real or a phantasy; Honor Paul managed to project both a girl wearing the façade of a precocious and sexually confident teenager and youthful vulnerability at the same time.

The ensemble gave us characterisations from a wide range of characters and backgrounds, including Amid, sensitively played by Aaron Thakar, whose Muslim faith is ridiculed by Leo; Lucy (Maria Melanaphy) who says nothing until we realise that she is on a sponsored silence and who is driven to break it by her need to show her anger at the situations happening around her; and Graeme, played by Luigi Jones, whose technical expertise leads him to try and help the situation by getting the televised repatriation up on the teacher’s computer.

It was also refreshing to see that many of the girls played strong characters, especially Daisy Haslam as Rachel, who takes the lead when she is asked to demonstrate a military march and Ella Jarvis as Spencer a girl who at first seems to be extremely passive and only able to do as she is told by the teacher, but who we then realise later is actually a very intelligent and self-minded person, destined to achieve. As the lunch bell tolls, we hear the key in the lock which brings to mind the sound of a jail being opened, in yet another layer coming through to the audience.


Punk Rock by Simon Stephens was first performed at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in early 2009. In this (almost) continuation of Bassett we now see A-level students in a fee-paying grammar school, and whilst coming from different backgrounds, there are similarities with the previous school. This play explores relationships, individualism and uniqueness. Opening with Another Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd, we were again presented with fully-developed characterisations, wholly believable in their delivery. William, dancing with his headphones on, is engrossed in his own world. The extent to which he lives in his own world whilst interacting with everyone else is developed through to stark conclusion with a superb performance by Johnnie Clark of a young man suffering borderline personality disorder and psychosis. This could have so easily been caricatured but through strong direction and character research it remained believable rather than stereotypical. New girl Lilly, was strongly played by Edie Moles as a confident young woman who attracts the attentions of William. The pressures to achieve still remain and are seen clearly through the character of Cissy, played by Anna Watson, a straight-A student completely able, yet racked with insecurity, whose relationship with the bullying and domineering Bennett, portrayed by Dominic Upton, demonstrates the human desire and need for acceptance. When Bennett orders her to kiss Chadwick, she complies and as Bennett tries to make Chadwick his plaything, he breaks loose. Again the parts of Cissy and Bennett were believable and very well acted, as was Chadwick (Kieran Judd) whose characterisation came across as someone who was truly confident in himself and unlike the others, was not projecting a façade.


Things start to unravel in individual worlds when Cissy gets a B and therefore has not lived up to everyone’s expectations. As the lights dim and I Don’t Like Mondays by the Boomtown Rats begins to play, William enters, carrying an automatic machine gun, and the situation begins to escalate. Cassie Woodhouse played the supporting role of Tanya particularly well here.

The final scene of this uncompromising play finds the now adult Spencer as seen in Bassett, as a qualified doctor interviewing William. Therefore these two plays, individually written, became inextricably linked through the vision of the director, Katie Abbott and her assistant director Laura-May Hassan.

The sets were designed and built to give the audience all they need without cluttering the space for the performers – special credits to Jo Moles as designer for achieving a great deal within a small space and Geoff Warren for realising the vision. In the first play we are in a Year 11 classroom and in the second, the set is a library of a fee-paying grammar school, portrayed by bookshelves and sofas. I particularly liked that the classroom was still visible though not lit behind the library scene, in what is now a portrayal of youth moving forward into another stage of their lives, representing that the past is always present, wherever the future is.

With sound designed by Martin Pope and sensitively operated by Jake Neill-Knight, there was good use of music at the start of the show which was interspersed throughout both plays and was very well chosen, as was the incidental sound which all added to the furthering of the piece both in character development and emotional content for the audience. The lighting design by Simon Bickerstaffe again added to the intensity and the emotion of the characters and allowed the audience a chance to enter their inner worlds.

Ultimately this was a complex and powerful political comment and its impact on the lives of young people today.

There is another chance to see these talented young performers as they take this bill to The Blue Box Theatre in Malta in July.

Ian Nethersell
February 2019

Photography courtesy of the RSS Young Actors Company

From → Drama, Reviews

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