Suspended adolescence suggests an inability to grow up, but the two grown men in Kenny Emson's taut schoolyard tragedy are trapped by their teenage years in a different way. Kev and Ben are both pushing 30, but both are defined by their 16 year-old selves. Things that happened half a lifetime ago have left them becalmed – two broken down cars on the side of the road.
Kev was the local likely lad: captain of the school football team, the object of every teenage girls' eye, a bully pulling status in the schoolyard. His bedroom was lined with painted plastic trophies. Mark Weinman, his hands plunged into the pockets of his hoodie, bubbles with excitement as he relives the last moments of the All-Essex Cup final: his run down the wing, his dart into the box, his shot on goal. He's sallowed since: a back-of-the-bus hero stuck on some factory floor.
Ben was badly bullied: an outcast at 16, shy and sullen and out of sorts with himself. Thomas Coombes plays him with a pent-up rage, rolling vengeful fantasies around his brain. "Think Columbine, think Sandy Hook, think Virginia Tech," he intones, a mantra that gets him through difficult days at school. You're waiting for him to snap.
Plastic is a purgatorial play – both haunted and haunting from the off. Emson puts these two washed-out adults in casual clothes on a bare, black stage with two fresh-faced teens in school uniform, Jack and Lisa. It's an unsettling image in itself – the discrepancy in age begs questions, while amplifying the gap between adult sadness and youthful sunniness. Kev canoodles in a corner with his teenage girlfriend, Lisa (Madison Clare). Ben skulks at the side of the stage with his best mate Jack (Louis Greatorex). They're trapped in a memory – it's just not clear whose.
If it looks like a classic case of bully and victim bound together forever, Emson's script springs its surprises well, setting up expectations then subverting them with skill. Demanding petty cash and cackling from the back of a brutal biology class, Kev creates a pressure cooker atmosphere and, as this golden boy effortlessly drives off in his car, girlfriend in tow, it leaves Jack and Ben simmering on the sidelines: unpopular, sexless and abandoned, even betrayed, by their childhood friend Lisa. Their bitterness is as blistering as it is foreboding.
It's a self-contained script – a play for young people that sits strangely in a pub theatre. But on its own terms, Plastic works well: a warning that the way you spend your teenage years can have long-lasting consequences, and that what matters in the world now means little looking back. But it's also a portrait of staid lives in a "sh**ty town"; dead-end existences in a place without opportunities. Emson's firecracker writing, though occasionally effortful, burns bitterly beneath its rhythms and rhymes: terraced houses are cages, classrooms feel like courtrooms.
Josh Roche's production catches its contradictions, offsetting teenage exuberance with adult remorse, and Sophie Thomas' spare design makes strong use of Peter Small's lighting to catch colourful memories that can feel like prison cells. But it's the performances that win out: Weinman and Coombes are quietly agonising as the two men stuck with their lot and pinned down by the past.
Plastic runs at the Old Red Lion until 21 April, then at the Colchester Mercury from 26 to 28 April.