The herons of Simon Stephens’ play are vicious. Vicious and beautiful. They swoop down to catch their prey, still and composed until they go in for the kill.
There’s more than a hint of the animalistic to director Sean Holmes’ and dramaturg Joel Horwood’s new version of Herons. In the soggy Darwinian playground that designer Hyemi Shin has created, everyone gets dragged underwater at one point or another – though categories of predator and prey are never quite as simple as in the natural world that both play and production evoke. The footage of primates that plays constantly on a large screen above the action dares us to watch the unfolding events like a David Attenborough documentary, but it’s far more complicated than that.
If the landscape of the stage is a playground, then teenagers are its main inhabitants. While adults lurk on the sidelines, this is decidedly adolescent territory. As well as the playground, with its garish roundabout and bobbing sit-on horse, Shin’s set suggests all the abandoned, concrete spaces that kids flock to. This one happens to be a canal lock, water gradually trickling through its gates, but it could just as easily be a deserted car-park or grubby underpass. It’s an in-between sort of place, a no-man’s land for those stranded between childhood and adulthood.
One such stranded individual is Billy, the child of a broken marriage and the butt of his classmates’ jokes. A year ago, his dad found a dead girl in the river and reported the boys who killed her. Now Scott – the young brother of one of the murderers – is promising revenge, tormenting Billy with the help of his two guffawing sidekicks. They are cruel in the way that only children are, ruthless and cunning in pursuit of their prey.
The fragmented, out-of-joint aesthetic of the set extends to Holmes’ production, in which scenes jut sharply into one another and the rules of time and space are frequently disrupted. Horwood has cannily chopped and rearranged Stephens’ text, creating the breathless sense that everything is happening at once. What might be calm, quiet exchanges between Billy and his Dad, fishing at the water’s edge, become truncated and immersed into the all-pervasive brutality of schoolyard bullying. Scenes never quite end, the performers remaining on stage to watch what comes next, their presence looming and ominous.
There’s more than a hint of Secret Theatre, its legacy shimmering like the light reflected off the water. It’s unsurprising, perhaps, given that Holmes, Horwood and Shin are all involved. Yet here some of the most interesting aspects of that project – bold design, a resistance to naturalism, a sense of exploration and surprise – are married to another of the Lyric’s core purposes: its commitment to young people. Two Bugsy Malone alumni (Max Gill as Billy and Sophia Decaro as Adele, the young girl who befriends him) return in this production, while impressive performances are delivered by all of the teenage cast (alongside Ed Gaughan and Sophie Stone in compelling turns as Billy’s parents). We see, for a change, young people actually played by young people – and with nuance and complexity to boot.
There are aspects of the play that are inevitably jettisoned by Holmes and Horwood’s short, sharp shock of an approach. The tenderness that tempers the cruelty – in moments between Billy and his alternately tough and gentle dad, or in the delicate connection that Adele finds with Billy – only briefly glimmers through the darkness in this version, while there are few moments in which to pause or reflect. What it does do brilliantly, though, is blur the fine line that separates bully from victim, particularly in its portrayal of tormenting and tormented Scott (a fantastic, production-stealing performance from Billy Matthews).
Unlike in the animal world, here the food chain is forever shifting. Predator becomes prey. The heron swoops. The cycle of fear and violence starts again.
Photo: Tristram Kenton.