“I’ve got nothing to look forward to”
There’s something rather apt about members of the Bugsy Malone graduating onto other productions at the Lyric Hammersmith, emphasising the ensemble feel that has taken over the building under Sean Holmes’ stewardship. And in Max Gill (a sensational Fat Sam) and Sophia Decaro (the Tallulah I didn’t see), there’re two young talents deservedly getting the chance to explore a wider range of teenage experience in Holmes’ production of Simon Stephens’ 2001 play Herons.
A brutal look at teen violence and cycles of revenge, it’s a play that’s marked by a truly shocking scene of rape, the haunting sound of which is still echoing in my mind now. Set on the Limehouse Cut, a canal in London’s East End, the ugly desolation and desperation of this world is clear from the off, a world where 14 year old Billy spends his time hiding from bullies and fishing for whatever small fry he can. Though when he becomes the catch of the day, the extent of its viciousness is exposed.
For Billy’s dad was a witness to a terrible crime the previous year and helped to put the perpetrators in jail and it is Scott, the younger brother of one of them, who is the ringleader of the bullies. And so the wheel turns, violence begets vengeance and that revenge begets its own retaliation – as the key antagonists, Gill’s boyish Billy and Billy Matthews’s unpredictable Scott are both agonisingly good, each damaged by the world and thus only able to act out in this way they know how.
Stephens’ typically enigmatic, even gnomic, style is in evidence even with this early piece of writing – information about a key event is slowly trickled throughout – though it did feel to me as if it is still emerging here in Herons. Billy’s mother is unsatisfactorily marooned in a sub-plot as the girl connected to both Billy and Scott, Decaro’s Adele is given precious little to really do. And even if the title gets a rather clunky explanation towards the end to grasp a barely-earned chink of hope, the undeniable lyricism is allowed to shinethrough.
As Holmes’ direction is full of interesting choices that you have to hope will inspire others. Scott’s mate Aaron is played by Ella McLoughlin and the role of Billy’s mother is taken on by deaf actor Sophie Stone, signing and speaking her way through the text – in an ideal world, one wouldn’t have to mention it but such a casual, unreferenced, approach to casting is still sadly rare and so it needs to be celebrated.
And in the bland, water-filled expanse of Hyemi Shin’s concrete jungle design, Holmes has a video (by Lucy Ockenden) of assorted primates in the real jungle, playing on a loop, an ongoing comment on human behaviour. A tough watch, aimed at age 14+, but a bracing one