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Will Merrick - Skins to Punk Rock

When Will Merrick signed up to join his school drama group, he never expected to be sitting in a Cornwall hotel room on his day off from the latest Richard Curtis film. Such a high profile role may have come as a direct result of the exposure he received playing horny farm-boy Alo in series five and six of cult teen TV, drama, Skins, but Merrick never expected to be in that either.

As the nineteen year old prepares for an Edinburgh Festival Fringe run of Simon Stephens' play, Punk Rock, with the theatre company he formed with friends from school, this is more where the Herefordshire-born actor expected to be at this stage in his career. As it is, the tellingly named No Prophet theatre company's two week Edinburgh run is likely to attract more attention than many similar shoestring outfits.

“In a way this makes sense of how I got into acting,” Merrick says. “We all used to come up to Edinburgh with a company called Close Up Theatre, which was the school company, and we did The History Boys and Death of A Salesman. But the company could only cast people up to the age of eighteen, so when some of us got a bit older, we still wanted to do it, so we decided to do it for ourselves.

So we just got together, and I was given the job of finding a play that we could do. I made a trip to the National Theatre library, and spent the day reading plays that we thought we might be able to do. Then I came across Punk Rock, and obviously I'd heard what a big success it was at the Lyric, Hammersmith, and I knew what a great writer Simon Stephens was, but Punk Rock seemed to be so relevant to the sorts of things that are happening now that it just seemed perfect for our group.”

What Merrick means by this is that he and his peers are not only the same age as the characters they play in Stephens' study of disaffected youth in a school library, but that the violent extremes it depicts are dangerously recognisable. Talking a couple of days after twelve people were killed and fifty-eight wounded outside an American cinema where the new Batman film was playing, you can see where Merrick, who plays the gifted but troubled sixth former at the centre of the play, is coming from.

“I think today is a particularly terrifying time to be a young person,” Merrick observes. “There are no jobs, there's no money, and there's so much pressure on young people. They're scared of the future and scared of who they are, and Simon Stephens captures that so well in Punk Rock. If people can't control their own lives, then they're going to try and control other people, so the play is about power in that way as well. It's so clearly come out of the Columbine massacre in 1999, but those sorts of things are happening more and more frequently these days.”

Merrick's amateur psychology not only makes him sound old beyond his years, but it's as far away from his Skins character as he could possibly get. Where Alo was something of a buffoon. William Carlisle, Merrick's character in Punk Rock, is a quietly driven outcast.

“Alo always wore his heart on his sleeve,” Merrick says of a character who inadvertently had a fling with an under-age girl before falling under the spell of queen bee Mini McGuinness, played by Edinburgh-based actress Freya Mavor. “He was an open book.”

Despite a solid grounding in drama at school from an early age, Merrick was thrown into the deep end after attending an open audition for Skins where he competed with some 8000 hopefuls for a part in the show. “I thought I knew a bit about acting,” he says now, “but I didn't know anything about camera techniques or where to stand. So I think it was the same for everyone, in that the second series we did was much better in terms of our confidence.”

Merrick was offered a place at the National Youth Theatre in 2010, but had to turn it down due to filming commitments on Skins. Similarly, he has been accepted by RADA, but again won't accept a place, if at all, until he finishes his current commitments. Titled About Time, Curtis' new feature finds Merrick starring alongside Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy and Lindsay Duncan in a typically feel-good comedy featuring a boy who can travel through time.

“That's the least of what the film is about,” according to Merrick, who plays the boy's friend. “It's more about love and family and making the most of every day.”

This is an attitude Merrick himself adheres to. His experience of putting on a play with his mates seems to confirm that Skins was a form of youth theatre on the telly that has proved to be a breeding ground for a new generation of break-out stars. These include Slumdog Millionaire award winner Dev Patel from first generation Skins, and Kaya Scodelario, who went on to play Cathy in Andrea Arnold's take on Wuthering Heights, from the second.

No Prophet's production of Punk Rock arrives somewhat fortuitously alongside a dearth of productions of Stephens' work on the Fringe. A production of Pornography, Stephens' post 7/7 meditation that was a hit at the Traverse a few Fringes ago, will play in the same venue as No Prophet. Stephens' latest play, Morning, in a production by the Lyric Young Company, again at the Traverse.

“Simon Stephens is such a great writer,” says Merrick. “I'd kill to meet him.”

Given Punk Rock's contents, Merrick's choice of words are comically unfortunate. Comedy, it seems, is clearly his forte, whatever happens next in his career.

“I really hope all this isn't a brief episode of my life,” he says, “because I'd love to do Shakespeare and stuff like that. I'd like to do the comic roles, but I'd also like to play someone with a bit of edge to them. If Withnail and I Two ever gets made, I'll be around for that, no problem.”

Punk Rock, August 3-18, the Space on the Mile (Venue 39), 4.15-5.50pm

The Herald, August 15th 2012



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