Herons, Lyric Hammersmith

A scene from Herons by Simon Stephens @ Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. Directed by Sean Holmes. (Opening 21-01-16) ©Tristram Kenton 01/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

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.

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Morning, Lyric Hammersmith

The auditorium is flooded with mangled, discordant screams. Pale fluorescent light creeps across the stage, illuminating a snapshot of horror with the clinical blandness of the hospital ward. And all around me, audience members stifle laughs.

This is the moment from Morning that is etched most vividly on my memory. Being seated in the middle of a group of teenagers, the demographic with which Simon Stephens’ latest, horribly compelling play concerns itself, offers a fascinating perspective on this piece – certainly not one likely to be found on press night (just one reason why it can be helpful to occasionally step out of the herd of ferociously scribbling critics, but that’s a subject for another time). Ripples of discomfort swell through the theatregoers around me as they drink in a cocktail of strangeness and recognition to which the only response is a nervous titter. As one boy put it on his way out, with a hint of awkward admiration, “that was bare weird”.

The “bare weird” show that Stephens and director Sean Holmes have created with the Lyric Young Company centres on Stephanie, a fiercely intelligent but disturbed teenage girl played with terrifying precision by Scarlet Billham. Sick with sadness yet unable to stop smiling, she dispenses viciousness without a flicker of concern. Stranded in an antiseptic suburbia where all the meticulously kept gardens look exactly the same, ennui is a permanent state for Stephanie and her friends – one of whom, Cat, is about to escape for university. Before she leaves, however, Stephanie has recruited unwitting boyfriend Stephen in a scheme for a savage send-off, an escalatingly brutal scene around which the play nauseatingly pivots.

I expect that numerous comparisons will have been made with Punk Rock, another unsettling Stephens play that takes modern youth as its subject. Not wanting to disappoint, I admit that such thoughts did strike me while watching Morning; in many ways these are quite different pieces, but a direct line can be drawn between William Carlisle and Stephanie. In each case, Stephens’ protagonist is startlingly intelligent, an intelligence that acts as an uncanny counterpoint to their respective brutality and apparent emotional detachment. Eschewing the hoodie-clad image that haunts portrayals of contemporary teenagers, Stephens’ portraits of this generation are all the more blackly horrifying.

What strikes me as being particularly important, perhaps for this play even more so than Punk Rock, is the teenage perspective. This is perhaps because my ears are still ringing with the words of Ontroerend Goed’s Alexander Devrient, who said something along the lines of teenagers being at a stage of life in which they can see what is wrong with the world but are not yet able to formulate any remedial ideologies (I’d recommend listening to his full, thoughtful, softly spoken interview for Theatre Voice, in which he speaks eloquently and at length about his work with young people). But what if they only see diagnosis without cure because that is the unacknowledged truth of the world?

Perhaps what we can take from Morning is the incisive awareness of a world in which, in Stephanie’s words, “everything is fucking shit”, an awareness not yet blunted by ideology or philosophy or religion – teenage nihilism three times distilled. But there is a taut, oddly appealing ironic tension between this apparent nihilism and the quotation from Marx that Stephanie prints in bold felt tip: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it”. The knowledge that this piece has been made specifically for and with the age bracket represented then adds another fascinating layer; how have the astonishingly talented members of the Lyric Young Company influenced this final, unblinkingly bleak vision of the world?

Which brings me neatly, if not uncomplicatedly, onto my next point. As discussions of Stephens’ work tend to veer towards considerations of collaboration, especially in the wake of the extensive critical discussion around Three Kingdoms, and as I’m ever more conscious of the disingenuousness of critically portioning a production into writing, direction, design and so on, it seems apt to reflect on the ways in which the various elements of this piece feed into one another.

In considering the aesthetic of the whole, the words that rise most stubbornly to the surface of my mind are “antiseptic” and “clinical” (neither in a negative sense, I should add, but one that feels crucial to the piece). From stark fluorescent lighting to unsettlingly alienated performances, there is a sterile coating that settles over the production like the shimmering sheets of plastic that shroud Hyemi Shin’s set. The design itself is what first snatches at the attention: the large, half-filled glass tank of water, the industrial fridge containing a single bag of blood, the forensic tent, the assorted lights, the plastic – there’s lots of plastic. This seeps into the plasticity of the performances, a sort of blank, detached distortion of naturalism that could just be taken for stiff acting in the opening moments but that soon emerges as a very particular style, one that is married to the coldly artificial quality of the design and the dislocated realism of Stephens’ text (a misleading and loaded word, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, but one that will do in the absence of a more precise vocabulary).

In place of the domestic settings to which Stephens’ dialogue refers, the production is littered with forensic paraphernalia, an implicit nod to the current ubiquity of the detective narrative, but this is a crime scene in which nothing is solved (a nice example of how a non-literal interpretation can be a more perceptive comment on the text than one which sticks rigidly to its real-world inferences). It also hints at a certain clue-hunting critical approach to theatre, a quest for meaning that Stephens – and indeed the whole production – actively eschews.

Without listing every aspect of this intriguing staging, the other element of the production that merits particular mention is Michael Czepiel’s nightmarishly distorted soundscape, which is produced live on stage with both Czepiel and the sound desk in full view. As well as peeling away the illusions of theatricality, this choice pulls on strands of voyeurism and plants another of the production’s subjects as a permanent presence, the (mostly) silent youth glued to the computer screen.

Returning to nihilism, this multi-layered whole produces an anarchic, punk-inflected void of meaning, a great black gaping hole where we might expect to see hope or redemption or some kind of “message”. Perhaps deflecting some of the criticisms that have been levelled at his work in recent years, the concluding words of Stephens’ script (yes, sorry, I’m attaching elements to single individuals once again, but let’s just assume for sake of ease that these words are purely Stephens’) are a gutting “fuck you” to any demand for an optimistic chink of light. But just to contradict that – and to once again overturn my simplifying attributing of authority to Stephens – the production itself goes on to complicate this appropriately teenaged gesture of rebellion.

Morning is the sort of uncompromising piece that inevitably cleaves opinion, if not perhaps to the same impassioned extremes as Three Kingdoms (which I will, eventually, stop going on about – probably). Potent reactions spill tangibly through the audience throughout the painfully gripping hour of the play’s length and pour out into the packed foyer after the final bow. The one response that is markedly absent from the teenagers around me, however, is shock. Like Stephanie, they emerge smiling. After all, if you know already know that there is nothing but terror, what else is there to do but laugh?