An abundance of plastic covers this queasy and uncanny piece from Simon Stephens, making the set appear somewhere between the Roswell of youth and a contaminated construction site where adolescence is sticky with horror. Hyemi Shin’s set has a voluminous air-sucking plastic sheet, as a duvet for three-up, as a grave, where plastic bottles are emptied in a simulacrum of waterboarding, where a plastic greenhouse acts as some alterspace of decompression. It captures the rule-fucking and skin-taste of adolescence; those electric surges that sit next to unhappy queasiness. Eloquently delivered by fringe debutants at the Lyric Young Company it continuously rebuffs any nostalgia its older audience might be seeking, marking our memories with quiet low level horror, and the extending horizons of anxiety.
This shroud separated us and the characters from nature, one of Stephens’ abiding themes. “You spurn my natural emotions” sings Stephanie, The Buzzcocks invoked in some Polystyrene recursion to punk with its binliners and industrial wasting, and if perhaps the polymers are a bit overused it’s a neat piece of coding for what is billed as a young people’s play. The rest of the atmosphere is similarly unforgiving, where one can hear no “no cars, no planes, no birds”, caught in perpetual brownsite and redevelopment, and when the canned birdsong leaks in from apocalyptic continents we are almost looking at Wastwater juniors.
Nature returns with unnerving clarity. There are nods to Stephens’ recent hit Three Kingdoms, not just in the strange unexplained tableaux (which don’t quite nail the fierce psychic otherness and coherence that NÃ¼bling does; but does feature a superb post-human halo) the chamber-tech soundtrack, a piece of origami (a hat turned Nietzschean Appoline burning boat) but in the focus on cruelty. Brutal circling games of power are played, here with girls trapping, emotionally exploiting and hurting boys resulting the play’s shocking central act. Feeling in this world is extreme as nature returns fiercely uncompressed – we float with the character in moral detachment or in sharp rushes of bitten lips and spots of blood. “I swear I can smell flowers all of a sudden” says one character, while another says of her boyfriend he “earths me”, all the while watched over by the embalming of the glow of the ever-present computer screen. Here sits Mikey Czepiel who adds swift sample orchestration, at one brilliant moment playing out a chopped scream in a powerful note of sonic recursion.
In a recent blog Dan Rebellato invoked the uncanny valley to describe Stephens hyper-naturalism, a hard pressure to shy away through a surfeit of recognition of ourselves amidst the weird turbulence – and here the performative gaucheness of youth surrounded by the dangerous sureness of the Id; the clarity of purpose caught in misdirection, the lustful palpable act in the penumbra: all work toward destabilising traditional naturalism. Ted Reilly brings that lizardly cocksure bite which makes him a young actor to watch, while Scarlet Billham carries out fine work mysteriously flirting with reality like a home counties Audrey from Twin Peaks. When she deliberately scrawls in red lipstick on the plastic tent Marx’s immortal words: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it”, we are struck hard with the dangerous hope of youth, in all its natural sickness, untrammelled glee, residual xcoreness and irl experimentation.