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Herons review at Lyric Hammersmith, London – ‘grimly relevant’

A scene from Herons at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo: Tristram Kenton A scene from Herons at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Water drenches people here. It clings. Kicked in frustration, it’s a constant ripple across the surface of the stage, building in pressure behind a wall that looks like a flood gate. It keeps the past always present. Hyemi Shin’s set design is a technical feat turned into a stark metaphor for characters drowning in their lives.

This drip-drip oppressiveness adds to the claustrophobic sense of crushing hopelessness underlying Lyric associate artist Simon Stephens’ sharp shock of a play – first staged at the Royal Court in 2001. For this gruellingly powerful revival, the Lyric’s artistic director Sean Holmes has taken the reins and has enlisted several other associate artists.

It’s a joy to watch a production where all the creative elements marry so well. The watery shimmer of Paule Constable’s lighting on the ceiling is fragile, just like the heron that Dad (Ed Gaughan) wants to kill. Beauty exists in Stephens’ play, but it’s trampled. And the murder of a teenage girl a year ago has rippled on, as a sex doll blown up at the start never leaves the stage.

This production’s strength, its lingering sting, is in the way it dares us to judge. The schoolkids who bully Max Gill’s Billy are vicious, and Billy Matthews is chilling as ringleader Scott. But we don’t get to be invisible spectators. The actors speak at us, eyeballing us defiantly from the stage. It’s a kick in our complacency. Younger actors Gill and Sophia Decaro give performances a world away from their roles in the Lyric’s revival of Bugsy Malone last year.

Similarly, the constantly playing video backdrop of monkeys and their rituals initially feels clumsily on the nose, a sledgehammer comment on feral teenagers from broken homes. But as the performances make us complicit, draw us in, it begins to feel as though the joke is on us – on our desire for neat answers, the anthropologist’s smug detachment.

Conversations and exchanges ignore real time; everything is off-kilter. Verbal and physical violence explode unpredictably as characters linger in the back of scenes. There’s no progression or release, just a building up of people and things. Jokes and family confrontations are intercut in knife-sharp ways. Stephens and Joel Horwood (as dramaturg) let the text float, with staccato scenes sliding into each other as if they’re all part of an endless now – time and space funnelled into a single bleak and deserted playground.

Holmes has produced a resonant and intelligent revival of a play about anger that has nowhere to go, where abusers become victims and vice versa. It’s a rebuking piece of theatre, well-acted and grippingly staged, accentuated by a starkly effective set design. There are no easy answers, just cycles of hurt. It seems grimly relevant today, as we demonise or dismiss sections of society for self-reassurance.

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A brilliant and bruising revival of Simon Stephens’ sharp shock of a play.