A burst of spontaneous applause ten minutes into Act II speaks volumes for audience engagement, as fearful, humiliated genius Chadwick Meade Rory Corcoran rounds on his tormentors with his devastating, existentialist intellect. Simon Stephens’ thrillingly absorbing play cuts to the quick of so many contemporary issues that it feels like an anthem for our troubled times.
Selina Cartmell’s explosive production packs a really visceral punch and her young, largely inexperienced cast respond keenly to the authenticity of the writing and the raw energy of the jangling punk score punctuating the scene changes. Set during exam time in the sixth-form common room of a fee-paying English grammar school, this group of upwardly mobile students offer living proof that intelligence and privilege are no defence against insecurity and fear of failure.
Monica Frawley’s set unsettlingly transmits the atmosphere of a safe haven which will become an abattoir. The spirit and accents of the writer’s native Stockport are unflinchingly preserved, with Belfast’s Rhys Dunlop doing a fine job in the anchor role of William Carlisle, a sexually and socially confused teenager, who can barely separate fact from fiction. Lauren Coe is a teasing little minx as Lily, the new girl who sacrifices friendship with William for sex with the infinitely more glamorous Nicholas Jonah Hauer-King. Meanwhile, one can only watch in horror the mounting cruelty of Ian Toner’s swaggering Bennett, which his paranoid girlfriend Cissy Aisha Fabienne Ross and vulnerable Tanya Laura Smithers are powerless to stem.