Garage Band

12 June 09 words: Adrian Bhagat
A group of forty-somethings try to defeat middle age and recapture the heyday of punk by forming a covers band


Garage Band at Nottingham Playhouse (Credit: Robert Day)
Photo: Robert Day

Is it possible to be punk any more? Andy Barrett's new play tells the story of four middle-aged people who try to recapture their punk days by forming a band. However, the punk movement was firmly routed in a point in history, born from anger and alienation of young people in a time of poverty and unemployment. What do middle aged, middle class people have to be angry about apart from speed cameras and people swearing on TV? If they try to rebel against convention then are they, in the words of the band's guitarist, Alan, 'being punk or just grumpy old sods?'

The four of them, led by drummer Gavin, start to rehearse in a garage, covering classic songs by the likes of The Damned and Buzzcocks. As they improve, they begin to get gigs and then to become better known thanks to Alan's use of the internet to build a following. With a tour booked and the prospect of supporting The Damned at a festival, it looks like they might be about to make the big time. However, the lead singer, Danny, has to choose between his life as an academic (a professor of punk music) and his role in the band. Gavin is outraged: how can he want to talk about the punk lifestyle rather than living it? There is a crisis of authenticity: for Gavin, what they are doing is truly punk but Danny feels like a tourist and sees punk as something that only happened in the past. This difference is the central theme of the play which is an insightful and nostalgic examination of punk's history and its modern day significance. The meditation on the difference between being punk and playing, listening to or appreciating punk music means that the first half of the play is a little slow moving, but it livens up in the second half as the band play some great anthemic songs live on stage. The cast had to learn to play together in only a short time and their fictional band was good but not great, which just added to the realism. The audience really enjoyed the songs and many people were attempting a seated version of pogo dancing (which I found is actually very hard to do).

Garage Band at Nottingham Playhouse (Credit: Robert Day)
Photo: Robert Day

There is plenty of humour in the story, particularly around Danny who bleats out the songs in his soft Devonian accent and who, like the playwright, was brought up listening to Pam Ayres and The Wurzels. Although it is easy to laugh at old people acting young, Barrett doesn't make his characters into figures of fun but rather they become objects of envy as they throw off their shackles and act inappropriately for their age, a bit like those WI ladies making their nude calendar. They become both reckless and happy. In the fantastic video of their tour, projected onto the stage while the band plays, there is even a tribute to the famous appearance of the Sex Pistols on Bill Grundy's TV programme.

The play treads a thin line. After all, we were a mainly middle class audience in the safe environs of a theatre watching a play about middle class people rebelling. At the end of the play, we were encouraged to stand up and dance to the Garage Band's last song but only a few had the nerve. So, I suppose, it's official: punk really is dead. Or is it?

Garage Band plays at the Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 20th June 2009.


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