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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I Want My Hat Back, National Theatre

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Originally written for the Guardian.

The kids’ verdict on the National Theatre’s new family offering comes in early. “This is a funny show!” exclaims one girl about 15 minutes in, giggles erupting around her. It’s hard to disagree.

Narratively speaking, there’s not a lot to Jon Klassen’s laconic picture book. The plot is mostly spelled out in the title: Bear’s hat has gone missing and he wants it back. This simplicity, though, is part of the joy of both book and adaptation. Around the limited framework, director Wils Wilson and her team have built a mischievous, boisterous delight of a show.

Bear (Marek Larwood) loves his red, pointy hat. But when he leaves it unguarded in the forest, opportunistic Rabbit (Steven Webb, with all the hyperactive energy he has brought to the Lyric Hammersmith’s pantomimes) is quick to snatch it up. Bear’s attempts to track it down lead him through a series of encounters with his fellow forest inhabitants.

Wilson’s version lets young audiences in on its tricks, welcoming them on stage at the beginning and making few attempts to hide its make-believe. Fly Davis’s DIY design has pot plants for trees and animal ears for costumes, while the chorus’s rapid changes of character often happen in full view. It’s a production that gets that kids understand pretending.

There’s plenty for the big kids in the audience too, from Arthur Darvill’s genre-hopping music to Joel Horwood’s book and lyrics, which retain Klassen’s concision and offer knowing winks to the adults. Wryly ad-libbing through the vocal responses of younger spectators, Larwood gives a brilliantly deadpan performance, which plays to two levels simultaneously. A show for all ages is a rarer thing than marketing copy tends to suggest, but I Want My Hat Back achieves that aim with ease.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

I ❤ Peterborough, Pleasance Courtyard

Originally written for Exeunt.

Love is a feeling that you can’t describe in a word, not really. That is the real reason, Joel Horwood’s quirkily beautiful new piece argues, why we draw anatomically inaccurate symbols on Valentine’s Day cards and tacky tourist T-shirts. We struggle to say it in words, so we make it into a picture.

The love that Horwood’s play paints is romantic love, parental love and the strange, unconditional love mingled with hate that we often feel for the place we come from. In the unlikely surroundings of Peterborough’s cul-de-sac ridden suburbs, Michael – or, as he’d prefer us to call him, Lulu – applies his lippie and slips on his ruby red heels. He is in pursuit of love and happy endings, but that love arrives in a somewhat unexpected package when his teenage son Hew arrives at his doorstep.

As the ruby slippers hint at, for Lulu and Hew there’s no place like home. Their small, chintz-decked abode is a refuge from the jeers and stares of the town, of the eyes that would “take bites” out of them. Within this gaudy sanctuary, father and son work on a double act, escaping the world’s cruelties through the retreat of music. Jumping off from this platform, Horwood, who also directs, is able to flirt playfully with form, clashing drama with cabaret and throwing occasional meta-theatrical winks to the audience.

A keyboard sits at the back of the performance space, at which Jay Taylor’s awkwardly gentle Hew plays musical accompaniments and lends his voice to Lulu’s stories. It is these stories which form the real heart of the piece, with Milo Twomey’s warm, overtly theatrical presence as Lulu spreading across the stage. Yet beneath the brash persona there is a strain of brittle vulnerability and viciously protective violence, a violence that is reflected in Horwood’s words.

Love is often meshed with pain, with fists and bites, while recurring interruptions remind us of the people blowing each other up around the globe at the same moment the onstage events are occurring. It is a shade of darkness pasted with glitter that colours the entire piece but is not fully interrogated. Tenderness, it is perhaps suggesting, can never come without scars.

Horwood’s writing offers up phrases like candies, sweetly rolling on the tongue. He is a creative master of the simile; love feels like “driving over humpback bridges too fast”, while a girl’s face “trembles like a pond”. Grit-flecked poetry is crafted from the soulless concrete, proof that anything can be beautiful if it means enough. In this way, Peterborough slowly becomes a mirror for these two damaged inhabitants. They might be odd and occasionally ugly and difficult to love, but the possibility for love still remains.

Photo: Mike Kwasniak