When did childhood become so bleak and terrifying? Simon Stephens wrote Herons 15 years ago but its themes of adolescent bullying, teen violence and lost dreams were prescient. If anything, things have got a lot worst for today’s youngsters since its premiere at London’s Royal Court.
An incendiary new production opened last night at the Lyric Hammersmith and its grim portrayal of life on the streets of East London is disturbing and brutally shocking. When did children stop being so innocent? Today they carry knives – using them with impunity – and live a feral existence.
Before the drama begins the audience is entertained with a film about troupes of various species of apes (not a heron in sight). We watch them loving, caring for their young, living together, defending and protecting each other.
But in the real world – at least in working class Limehouse where the play is set – there’s no room for love, feelings, compassion or traditional family values.
Our “hero” is 14-year-old Billy who has had to drag himself up after the collapse of his parent’s marriage. While his former alcoholic mother cares for two younger siblings, Billy lives with his shiftless dad (Ed Gaughan) who spends his time fishing (and fending off herons – I sympathise) rather than looking for a job. He’d rather hook a carp than change his shirt.
Young Billy dreams of a better life. He wants to move to the seaside, breath clean air, and escape his squalid childhood at the hands of predators who shadow his every move.
There’s a lot unsaid in Stephens’ play but as it progresses we hear about the awful back story that brings us to this moment in time. It’s a tale of violence (with one scene that will shock you to the core) told in a wet, surreal setting.
What strikes you the moment bully, Scott Cooper, comes on stage and glowers at the audience, is Hyemi Shin’s evocative set. Director Sean Holmes has his cast perform in about three inches of water on a flooded stage (I can see a series of colds on the horizon) and, at one point, floodgates threaten to send a fresh torrent to wash away the detritus of life loitering in the dreary playground.
Watery reflections play off the Lyric’s ceiling and Paule Constable’s harsh lighting adds to the gloom and despondency.
Billy is surprisingly brave considering the circumstances. We learn that a year earlier a 13-year-old classmate was snatched by a gang of thugs and held under the water to drown. It was the boy’s father, Charlie, who found her and shopped her attackers to the police. Now Scott’s older brother, Ross, is inside and vowing revenge.
While nothing seems to faze Charlie, his son is feeling the heat with veiled threats and intimidation from Scott and his cohorts Darren and Aaron. The gang leader expertly swings a golf club, offers a Malteser and then demands Billy’s pocket money. Scott is expert at inferring threats of terror with the most innocuous of comments and gestures.
The air is thick with menace. There’s an explosive finale after Billy finally snaps and stands up to the 15-year-old. He suffers terrible consequences but his retribution lacks conviction. At least one child still has some humanity and dignity.
You leave Herons moved and saddened but there’s no denying the raw talent from its young cast – from Max Gill’s innocent and damaged Billy to the subtle, understated and threatening Billy Matthews as Scott.
Herons begins and ends with Scott defiantly eye-balling the audience and daring confrontation.
Ella McLoughlin, playing a boy, Aaron, (go figure), makes a fearsome gang member while Moses Adejimi’s Darren is more pensive and restrained (there’s always one lamb in a gang).
Billy may be a fish out of water in this neighbourhood but his tormentors, if we’re using fishy metaphors, are more heartless pike than the bottom feeding tench, who are fodder for the dominant species, which the young boy nets in his leisure time.
Think the Lyric has hooked a winner.
Herons runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until February 13.
Bleak, explosive and incendiary. Simon Stephen’s Herons, a raw and brutal ode to lost youth, has been revived by Lyric Hammersmith.