Just the third show at the Lyric since it re-opened its doors, the direction of the theatre is clear – it’s young, it’s fresh, it’s diverse and all at the heart of Hammersmith.
The play opens as a group of kids splash on stage in bawdy school uniforms; they look at you for a while, then one blows up an inflatable sex doll. All the while he takes his time, taking pauses just to look at us. The scene is set for a humorous but dark restaging of Simon Stephen’s play, 15 years after it was premiered.
The story centres around Billy (Max Gill) whose dad (Ed Gaughan) uncovered a dead girl a year ago, which consequently led to the imprisonment of Scott’s (Billy Matthews) older brother. Scott is a trademark high school bully, with his “boys” Darren (Moses Adejimi) and Aaron (Ella McLoughlin) constantly backing him up. Friendship comes from Scott’s ‘girlfriend’ Adele, played touchingly by Sophia Decaro. His parents aren’t much use and Billy is forced to deal with everything himself.
The design is incredible: the entire stage is flooded with water, with a constant flow trickling from a dam wall behind them. The kids splash and crawl around in it, whilst Billy’s mum (Sophie Stone) soaks herself in it; there’s a great moment when she plonks on her wellies, which are full of water. The ceiling lights up with the reflection of the water bouncing around the decor of the theatre. Although the action moves from different areas, we are moved only by their conversations as they remain in their eerie playground, a constant reminder of the pivotal event of the play. The kids’ school uniforms look like they’ve escaped from 1950s Eton. A large screen projects constant images of monkeys, whilst the only place to perch is rusty playground equipment. Billy’s dad swans around in chest waders, concealing a revolver down his pants. It’s bonkers, but brilliant.
The casting gives me hope for a new wave of theatre, McLoughlin’s kick-ass portrayal of Aaron makes me feel empowered. She is a sparky actress who leaves everything at the door. Sophie Stone is deaf, so the addition of signing in her and Billy’s conversation is necessary and adds a layer to their communication and relationship; her performance is nothing less than heart-wrenching. And for the first time I saw kids play their real age: 14-year-olds stand on that stage with the brazenness of older actors and it is inspiring.
Simon Stephens continues to hit us in the face with his writing, conveyed with consistent rigour by a great cast. Like the inside of a 14-year-old’s brain has finally exploded and we get to see how they feel, the stakes are high but the immaturity of it is highly parodied by the paint on their faces. Director Sean Holmes has excavated everything that the young actors have given to him and run with it. The playfulness of words bounces between the cast, who force the production forward with aggression. There are even moments where the two ‘boys’ comment on the action like a Greek chorus, backing up Scott.
I actually feel a bit stupid writing all this stuff, because it can’t truly convey how real the piece was. I think the Lyric is doing an amazing job breaking down barriers and I hope it continues to do so, because this is the best play I’ve seen so far this year.
Herons is playing at the Lyric Hammersmith until 13 February. For more information and tickets, see the Lyric Hammersmith website. Photo: Tristram Kenton