This new play by E.V. Crowe (whose debut play Kin was staged by the Royal Court in 2010) explores some difficult questions about masculinity from the perspective of some deeply unsympathetic characters. Her fearlessness in probing our liberal self-deceptions carries the play, even though the characters often appear to be vehicles for her arguments.
Danny (Liam Garrigan) is ostensibly the ‘hero’ of the title. He’s a Jane Elliott-style primary school teacher who loves baking bread in his spare time. If he has any faults, it’s being “overreaching” and wanting quicker change than society-at-large can handle – a criticism used by his husband Joe (Tim Steed). Joe’s old college friend Jamie, married to Lisa (Susannah Steed), happens to work alongside Danny in a London primary school.
Jamie (brilliantly played by Daniel Mays) fantasises about living the kind of unreconstructed life where he can come home at night to be waited upon by his wife. He finds himself increasingly frustrated in a world where no-one seems to share his fundamental beliefs any more, despite describing himself as liberal and being in Joe’s words “the straightest gay man I have ever met”.
The sense of impending violence is built up by director Jeremy Herrin. But Crowe eschews melodrama for tough nuanced arguments about how to achieve the ideal society while living in an imperfect one. Joe is a pragmatist who wants Danny to be less “over the top” so the adoption agency will accept them as applicants. Danny wants the world to change already, and his “visionary” nature sees him almost putting their adoption chances at risk. He is motivated to give his pupils a demonstrative lesson about prejudice, playing on the idea of Noah’s Ark, following Jamie’s encounter with a pupil who he overhears calling him “gay”.
Hero takes a superficially liberal society, with the primary school as the nexus of change, as a starting point for looking at how we reconcile social change with our sense of entitlement. While Jamie feels increasingly victimised, Joe tells Danny: “In the real world, things shape up differently. And I can’t have children except by playing by certain rules. These are the rules – act normal.” The internalised policing is much less surmountable than the real world, where Danny’s most potentially risky decisions play out in his favour.
Masculinity is dealt with in ways which are more affecting than the broader storyline of the apparent gay hate campaign might suggest. Lisa’s humouring of Jamie’s habits is very different from her wide-eyed admiration of Danny, who she labels a “hero”. The title also pokes fun at Jamie’s own overwrought sense of suffering on facing prejudice for the first time in his life as a white middle-class men.
Crowe falls down somewhat by trying to cram in too much symbolism in a play which is actually at its sharpest talking about inexplicable but deeply-rooted real world prejudice. Lisa’s IVF-induced mysticism and Jamie’s references to ‘cosmic data’ are confusing and scenes such as his singing of ‘Cry Me a River’ make little sense, despite being amusing. Joe remains most obviously a cipher, representing a middle ground between Jamie and Danny’s world views, but the dialogue is smart enough for that to ultimately not matter.
Mays’ character, unsympathetic as he is, also invites the most laughter, which takes the edge off a production where the characters can be appear to be starkly polarised. The sometimes cynical arguments are all well made, and united by the disturbing notion that self-interest is as much of a factor in creating change as fairness is. Best of all, Crowe is prepared to invert her central metaphor of the boat in the final scenes to show how the biggest shifts in attitude can come about for the most mercenary of reasons.