“Do you ever feel like you’re not allowed to be a child any more?”
Simon Stephens wrote this drama of school gangs and child violence around the time of 10 year old Damilola Taylor’s murder, the memory of Jamie Bulger’s death not far off, and in a theatre scene newly open to letting violence and horror confront audiences on stage.
A group of teenagers meet in a liminal patch of wetlands, depicted in this production as a gorgeously-lit, entirely flooded stage. They’re childish, sometimes, but their quarrels have a brutality that threatens both each other and the adults that cluster or wait at the edges of the stage. Scott (Billy Matthews) is a charismatic bully, unable to cast off his brother’s long shadow. A year ago, Scott’s older brother drowned a girl, and from prison his menace extends through and beyond the small group of people who remember her.
Adele is drawn to the site where her friend died: Sophia Decaro’s awkward, bold performance captures all the contradictions of a teenager who’s mourning, in love, and hiding it all with a show of confidence. She and Billy have some surprisingly sweet moments: when he’s not being beaten by a pulp by the rest of the gang, that is. Sometimes the teenage gang’s dialogue tends to a kind of stagy artificiality, half way to a furious Greek chorus in sodden polyester. But what emerges from the ramshackle ensemble is how rare, and important, it is to see real teenagers being allowed to be teenagers on stage: not lumpen children squeezed into pinafores, not pristine drama grads mugging in hoodies.
Being a teenager is horrible, whether or not you’re in an ultra-violent gang that hang out in a giant puddle for fun. And maybe one criticism of Simon Stephens’ text is that he overeggs the claggy, spotted dick pudding that is life as a fourteen year old boy. Billy is swimming in thick gravy, with an unemployed Dad hiding him from social services, horrendous school bullies, and a murderous gang member on his family’s case. The pooling water ripples with endlessly skimmed swearwords, the kids watching us, daring us to react.
It’s in-yer-face theatre at its grimy best, and director Sean Holmes drags it effing and blinding into the 21st century with a strong-armed production. Simon Stephens’ text is cut to a lean 80 minutes, taken at a clip. And Hyemi Shin’s design is a lavish exercise in the kind of non-literalism UK theatres are meant to be scared of: as well as the water puddling round the kids’ ankles, there’s a playground rocking horse, a roundabout, a cascade, and a screen playing footage of baboons, mating and fighting with oafish vigour.
These decisions mean we lose the play’s quieter moments: Billy’s fishing Dad wouldn’t catch many mackerel in the constant visual frenzy, let alone see a flighty heron. But the amped-up animal overkill of it all is part of this production’s point, too. These teenagers don’t just fight, they go at it like ducks, blazers flapping and water splashing up in an incongruous display of real, nasty aggression. Their faces are smeared with red as they come on heat, pubescent and helpless in the face of nature: even as they scoff at Billy’s love of animals, and litter the earth with crisp packets and cigarette stubs.
Sean Holmes production emphasises display, as emphatically as a baboon does with its bright red rear end. Actors never leave the stage, watching and scoffing at intimate scenes, and confronting the audience too, daring us to be shocked. Impossible not to be. But what’s lost in this throw-it-all-in staging is space for contemplation, for loneliness, for the haunted wild places where herons land, no humans in sight.
Herons is on at the Lyric Hammersmith until February 13th. You can book tickets on the Lyric Hammersmith website here.