Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

A stunning – if slightly distracting – revival for Simon Stephens's brutal early work.

Received wisdom has it that playwright Simon Stephens – best known for adapting ‘The Curious Incident…’ – went ‘a bit weird’ sometime around 2008. But what the Lyric’s singular revival of 2001’s ‘Herons’ shows us is that the directors have changed more than the plays have. Trading in childhood violence, swearing, non sequiturs, sinister humour and unfathomable emotions, ‘Herons’ feels very much of a piece with Stephens’s later ‘school’ works ‘Punk Rock’ and ‘Morning’.

In fact, banging on about the playwright feels slightly off-piste here when so much of ‘Herons’ is determined by a radical collaboration between director Sean Holmes, dramaturg Joel Horwood (who has hacked out swathes of text) and designer Hyemi Shin. The set is essentially a life-size lock gate: most of the action takes pace in a shallow pool of water in its basin; above it a huge video screen plays looped footage of various monkeys. It is a remarkable and inevitably distracting spectacle. Several times I caught myself watching the film monkeys when I should have been focusing on the live humans.

Fortunately the cast of young, mostly unknown live humans are pretty good. ‘Herons’ centres on Billy (Max Gill), a tubby, bookish boy who lives with his eccentric, gun-toting dad. He is menaced by charismatic gang leader Scott – a camply sinister performance from Billy Matthews, channelling Alex from ‘A Clockwork Orange’ in the night’s standout turn. But it’s not as simple as all that: Stephens, a former teacher, is alive to the peculiar rhythms of 13-year-olds, and the way currents of power ebb and flow, switch and shift. As matters come to a head, it’s too easy to call Billy a victim and Scott a bully. There are other factors too, such as Adele (Sophia Decaro), a popular girl who has seen horrible things, and strikes up a guileless friendship with Billy.

It is a fizzing, pumped-up and beautiful watch, a darkly exhilarating study of humans as herd animals that crackles with tension and is a constant visual delight. However, much as I’m a fan of a bit of directorial jiggery-pokery, I have to say Holmes’s ‘Herons’ did not move me especially: the layers of knowingly adult aesthetics stifle the heart of what is ultimately a story about schoolkids. It’s thrilling, but a bit too arch. Still, these are thoughts in retrospect more than anything else – it’s as exciting an hour of theatre as you’ll see on the London stage at the moment. And if you don’t like it, there are always the monkeys.


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