Bluntly non-naturalist in its presentation but naturalistically cut throat in subject, Herons by Simon Stephens is both a vindication of the rights of children and an examination of their aptitude for violence. Backdropping the stage with a nature documentary of various (cute, hilarious, weird) monkeys and primates, makes an absurdly neat reference to Darwinism. (The play’s central question might be: what makes children do horrid things?) It was kinda cool watching high quality monkey footage with a play. I kept expecting to hear David Attenborough on voiceover. Monkeys are also a clever symbol contentiously and simultaneously symbolising the purity of nature and the primal instincts of the origins of man. We’ll get to why…
One family and a group of school friends (bullies?) form the central storyline. There’s a crime drama heart, with a mystery surrounding a girl called Rachel. She was found a year before the play is set, at a viaduct where the scene is played. The stage is a pool of water which becomes a successful and threatening set design, although the smell of chlorine is more reminiscent of pools than the great outdoors. A playground rocking horse on a big wire spring and brightly coloured roundabout are both coarse reminders of lost – or almost lost – innocence.
The young cast brilliantly pull off tentative teenage sways between fierce sadness, undercover insecurity and inconsolable rage. Sometimes they’re plain mean. Sometimes righteously. Always, the cast create the tense feeling that all is not well with the world. They ask each other: “Do you ever feel like you’re not allowed to be a child anymore?” It’s an abject comment that each rejects but the play questions it more complexly than their assertive denials concede.
This sad and cruel worldliness that pervades the play in various forms – in absent parenting, physical violence, cruel gossip and criminal threats – together with the central character Billy’s (Max Gill) deep yearning to escape makes the quick play unbearably claustrophobic. I knew the jokes were funny but I had to force myself to laugh out loud – the tension of it all overwhelmed me. What it comes down to, is that it’s a really well made play in every respect. I just really didn’t like it. Something about it revolted me. And there was almost nothing redeeming to console me. I’m almost certain that says more about my sensibility than it does about Herons. Why don’t you see it and then we’ll find out.
Herons is playing at the Lyric, Hammersmith until 13 February 2016. Tickets and info: www.lyric.co.uk/whats-on/production/herons/.
I really liked Tom Wicker’s review of Herons for The Stage. You can read it here.
Photo: Tristram Kenton