Teenage nostalgia is a powerful structure for a piece of drama. It’s easy for those school-day memories to recede among the cacophony of adult life, but when they do resurge, it’s like a tripped switch. Real life stops for second, and you’re plunged back into the intensity of the classrooms, the cliques, the anguished boredom, the enormity of an adolescence that can define so much of what comes after. And sometimes, you’re plunged right back into darkness. Because not all schooldays are happy ones.

In Kenneth Emson’s Plastic, we meet Jack (Louis Greatorex), Ben (Thomas Coombes) and Lisa (Madison Clare), resignedly going through the motions of twenty-first century teenage life in a “shitty little town-cum-shitty-little-city” in Essex. They used to be best friends, but now Lisa – pretty, popular – has ascended to the upper echelons of the school’s social order, hanging out down the park on Fridays with the football team. Jack and Ben, meanwhile, stay friends, best friends “closer than skin” friends, but are resigned to their positions as social pariahs. Particularly Ben, the perennial outsider, for years tormented by the other boys, by the teachers, with only Jack to stand by him – and Jack is increasingly fretting that he is tainted by association with Ben, the freak, the weirdo. And Ben is weird ­ – Coombes effectively captures the wretchedness of Ben’s situation in his tormented physicality, his brusque, defensive delivery, never quite concealing Ben’s shrill, permanent panic, and his rage. Ben is pulsing with anger, and in more unbearable moments chants a mantra: “Think Columbine, think Virginia Tech, think Sandyhook”. He appears to us as genuinely disturbed, and disturbing, and we come to sympathise with the seemingly long-suffering Jack, seemingly normal, embarrassed by his mate, longing for acceptance.

Lisa, by contrast, is looking forward, preparing herself for a very important occasion – tonight, she’s going to lose her virginity to her boyfriend, Kev. Kev is older, cooler (to the schoolkids at least) and in Lisa’s eyes he is ‘special’. In reality Kev, played with affecting vulnerability by Mark Weinman, sees himself as a no-hoper, unemployed, living with his mum, drifting from greasy spoons to kebab shops. He was once a hero of the school football field, a “big deal”, but the promise of a trial for a better team came to nothing. Now the only good thing in Kev’s life is Lisa, and he is as nervous about this evening as she is.

Plastic reminds you how violent adolescence is, how brutal. Girls are routinely referred to as “slags”, “bitches”, “and cunts”; the ties of friendship are slashed in a single text. When Lisa and Jack taunt Ben for “spoiling” things, for being weird, again, when the three are bunking off together, supposed to be enjoying a brief, strained reunion, their simple mockery feels infinitely crueller than any adult game of passive aggression. And that high-octane, vacillating teenage existence meets its poignant counterpoint in Kev and his painfully self-conscious patter – a portrait of expectation petering out, only a few years after it all seemed about to begin.

Plastic’s climax is almost too nasty to watch. Think Columbine, think Virginia tech, think Sandyhook – our expectations are pricked for some kind of coming dread, but a series of taut monologues and duologues continually wrong-foot us. The tension between the three friends, and the wider four characters spikes and slackens with mesmeric effect, exacerbated by Sophie Thomas’ understated stage design and Peter Small’s lighting – blinking naked bulbs are slung about on pulleys by the cast with much sinister metallic rasping and juddering, the lights starkly illuminating one character while throwing into murky shadow. It is effective, and also dislocating – the story jumbles at times, the characters variously attempt to resist the pull of the narrative, the inevitable, terrible conclusion to their stories.

The rhythmic dialogue, thick with rhymes and half-rhymes (hit and miss – there are a couple of clunkers), adds texture and pace, and occasional laughs, to what is at heart an intensely bleak, stark piece of theatre. It’s a dark, engrossing, disturbing trip down a very particular memory lane, but Plastic’s memoryscape is emphatically not a place to linger.

Plastic is playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 21 April 2018

Photo: Mathew Foster