This review was originally written for West End Frame
In the 15 years since it premiered at the Royal Court, Simon Stephens’ Herons seems to have dated a lot. Its central themes, although undeniably thought-provoking, all seem a little familiar and its taut plot doesn’t grip the stomach as it should do. Sean Holmes’ production at the Lyric Hammersmith gives it a stylish, expressionist twist but is still more intellectually stimulating than emotionally involving.
Set in a rough, working class neighbourhood of East London, Herons presents a group of emotionally confused, hormone-riddled teenagers reacting to the fallout from an appalling crime. There is Scott (Billy Matthews), the foul-mouthed bully whose delinquent brother is behind bars for the sadistic murder of a 13 year old girl and who seems to be inheriting something of his sibling’s sinister malice. There is Adele (Sophia Decaro), the popular girl with a growing conscience. And there is Billy (Max Gill), the Neville Longbottom to Scott’s Malfoy, the sensitive, intelligent loner forced to grow up fast in a cruel world.
This combination of scruffy school clothes, exuberant swearing and loaded handguns probably felt fresh and exciting back in 2001, but in 2016 it feels slightly tired. The good-for-nothing father, the drunken mother, the unspecific fate of the dead girl – it all seems a little too predictable. It is engaging on a philosophical, secular level, but not on an emotional one.
None of which is to say that Holmes’ revival lacks verve or vigour. He has, with Stephens’ permission, freely played with the original text and created a play that is much more symbolic, much more expressionist, and much more confrontational than one might expect. The problem is that it doesn’t have all that much to be confrontational about.
There are no entrances and exits anymore. The cast of seven, when not part of the action, simply skulk around on Hyemi Shin’s multi-level set, a utilitarian mixture of overflowing canal and children’s playground. They daub red paint on each other, stare somewhat aggressively into the audience, and speak Stephens’ richly authentic – and gloriously curse-filled – dialogue with a brisk, alluring rhythm. Behind everything glares a large screen, which unexpectedly plays footage of wild monkeys throughout.
There are fine performances all round. Matthews is particularly watchable as the sinister, violent Scott, somehow managing to simultaneously earn the audience’s sympathy and its disgust. Gill is charming as the endearingly uncool Billy, and Ed Gaughan and Sophie Stonedeserve praise for their naturalistic performances as Billy’s layabout father and prostitute mother respectively.
The audience is provoked into ruminating on a number of ideas, the pack mentality of teenagers, the role of the state in providing social care, the speed at which children living in deprived areas are forced to grow up, to name but a few. These are important topics, undoubtedly, but they are no longer so shocking as to merit the hostile swagger that Holmes presents them with. Herons shines light on issues we already know exist, but it doesn’t seem to have anything new to say about them.