'Herons' review or 'I think I've hooked a big'un.'

'Herons', Simon Stephens
Lyric Hammersmith, 26th January 2015

There are an awful lot of slippery characters and shimmering moments in Simon Stephens’ ‘Herons’, a play flooded with ambiguity and buckets of water. The script – originally written in 2001 – has been chopped up, reshuffled and plonked down on Hyemi Shin’s disjointed set, which looks like a bunch of locations – a dam, town, river and outdoor cinema - crammed hastily together. There are weird gaps everywhere, the chronology is skewed and the set is leaking water. And the children in this play? Terrified and terrifying, victims and bullies; trusting souls that are not to be trusted.

Sean Holmes has created an elegantly bruising production, which holds back the punches until the latest possible moment. One doesn’t realise just how brutal this piece is until much too late.  Perhaps that’s because the majority of the characters are children – and how much harm can they do, eh? Stephens returns again and again to children in his works – they are the mirror he holds up to human nature – and he has revealed some frightening reflections in this subtle and chilling play.

Lord of the Flies is a palpable influence: both works examine the way in which a hostile location, boredom and lack of authority – just plain old childhood really – can create an ugly group mentality among kids. The ‘piggy’ of ‘Herons’ is Billy (Max Gill), a chubby and awkward chap who has become the punching-bag for local lout Scott (Billy Matthews). As Scott and his two henchmen (one played by a girl) circle in on Billy – pushing, goading and threatening him – Holmes’ quietly ratchets up the tension. Crisp packets pop and fizzy drinks explode. Water begins to trickle through the set, the lighting dims and the parents – peripheral figures at best – move into the shadows.

The teasing direction, disjointed structure and complex performances (so impressive in such a young company) swirl the play about in the strangest of directions and the audience - literally ensnared by the shimmering lights which engulfs the stalls - are caught up in the rip tides. We begin to lose our grip on reality and our moral compass (perhaps messed up by all that water) goes out of whack.

Characters, scenes and the set itself turn in on us. Billy’s dad (played with extraordinary ambiguity by Ed Gaughan) feels alternately threatening and reassuring, warm yet cold as hell. Billy’s mother (Sophie Stone) looks at us with imploring eyes and we long to trust her, but something holds us back. Billy himself consistently lets rip with a startling laugh – a self-conscious bleat that somehow seems separate from Billy, conjured up from somewhere else. At first that laugh seems funny and endearing but it gradually suggests hidden depths to Billy that perhaps we’ve failed to see.

A huge overhead projection screen shows a group of orangutans preen and play with each other – but the images get caught in jarring loops and the animals’ behaviour turns violent. Red streaks are scrawled across the children’s faces and flashes of frightening clowns and tear-streaked faces race through our heads. In one perfectly wrenching scene, Scott bites hard on Billy’s finger and, as the two stand locked in a violent embrace, blood seeps from Scott’s mouth. The role of victim and bully begin to blur, as the parents watch from the wings and the audience judge from a distance.