Fifteen years after its first release, Simon Stephen’s Herons has returned to the London stage. Thanks to Sean Holmes’ direction, the play has been revived with more vitality and brutal honesty than ever before.
Following the murder of a young school girl, Billy, played by Max Gill, is prey to the verbal and physical tyranny of ringleader Scott, Billy Matthews, and his hounds Darren and Aaron, Moses Adejimi and Ella McLoughlin. Scott seeks to avenge his older brother who was convicted of the murder, accused by Billy’s very own father Charlie Russell, Ed Gaughan, whilst hiding his own humiliation and insecurity. Meanwhile Billy, who finds an unlikely companion in Scott’s so-called girlfriend Adele, Sophia Decaro, attempts to deal with his broken family life.
Hyemi Shin’s set anchors the play in the past. The stage is a children’s playground flooded with water; a constant reminder of the young girl’s death, also embodied in the form of a blow-up sex doll that aimlessly ripples across the stage. Child play becomes feral cage fighting in the plays culminating scene where centre-stage Billy is viciously sodomized by Scott. Video projections of monkeys carrying out their daily rituals behind the cast make unreserved parallels between mans primitive nature and the animalistic behaviour of the children as they descend into chaos. Despite the monstrous act, Holmes doesn’t make it easy to judge the perpetrators as Scott is clearly distraught by his deeds. Matthews’ performance gives you hope that there is still a young boy lingering, or rather trapped, beneath the surface of his unstable persona.
Holme’s anti-naturalistic direction succeeds in immersing you in the action. The actors directly engage and interact with the audience as the bullies shout at and eye up the spectators. The front rows are sprayed with water as the cast lunge across the stage. Holmes chops and changes Stephen’s dialogue with moments of witty humour and explosive verbal chaos. Within a matter of seconds, Holmes’ direction has the power to make you laugh out loud and shiver in terror, forcing the audience to constantly reconsider their perspective as the story unravels. The chilling portrayal of lost teenagers with no guidance forces you to question the contemporary significance. It is noteworthy that Herons first appeared shortly after the murders of Damilola Taylor in 2001 and James Bulger in 1993. Daring and at times disturbing, Holmes production resonates with you long after you’ve left the theatre.