PintSized Productions presents 'Herons' by Simon Stephens.

PintSized Productions presents 'Herons' by Simon Stephens.

PintSized Productions presents 'Herons' by Simon Stephens.

PintSized Productions presents 'Herons' by Simon Stephens.

PintSized Productions has set itself the aim to showcase emerging professional talent in Northern Ireland. In electing to stage Simon Stephens’s Herons, the company has chosen material that serves this purpose fantastically. Stephens is one of the leading voices in contemporary playwriting not just in the United Kingdom but across Europe. As an Artistic Associate at the Lyric Hammersmith and in his relationship with German director, Sebastian Nübling, moreover, he has developed significant works for younger performers, including Punk Rock and Morning. What is perhaps surprising is the quality of the writing here in a play that premiered in 2001 at the Royal Court when Stephens was just emerging as a writer.

Herons by PintSizedThe Royal Court connection sets up resonances with another play, Edward Bond’s Saved, and the impact its exposure of the violent world of teenage gangs had on its contemporary culture. Here fifteen-year-old Billy (Domhnall Herdman) fishes in the midst of an urban wasteland, strewn with rubbish, seeking peace in the catching of tench. He is a loner whose main concern is the welfare of his father (James Doran), a man whose life has fallen apart in the year since he witnessed the murder of a thirteen-year-old girl in the same spot at which his son fishes. Doran seems to specialize in these roles as a damaged adult, and here he maintains both Charlie’s persistent helplessness and flashes of anger which pierce his carapace of bewildered decency.

The imminent anniversary of the girl’s death galvanizes three local hoods to torment Billy and through him, his father. In the lead is Scott (John Travers) whose brother was convicted of the murder, presumably from Charlie’s testimony; aided and abetted by his henchmen, Aaron (Anthony Boyle) and Darren (Conor Doran). Although initially they seem reminiscent of television’s hapless In-Betweeners, the threat that they pose escalates, until it ends in a hideous sexual assault with a beer bottle on Billy. Helplessly watching all of the events is Adele (Siobhan Kelly) Scott’s girlfriend, barely holding herself together in the aftermath of the murder and coping with her own mental health issues in a world without hope.

Director Patsy Hughes successfully transposes the action from East London to North Belfast. It has a double effect: allowing the actors to work within a verbal and physical idiom that enables them to inhabit their roles, and creating for the audience a thrill of recognition. This is not some alien landscape, but the menacing city just beyond the theatre’s doors, where violence is imminent. I was thankful that I had left my own teenage years there back in the 1980s. It struck me that the violence, verbal and physical, is not disturbing because it is unexpectedly shocking; rather it unfolds with the inevitable banality of the familiar. Stephens sets this up in the way he nuances swearing to capture the casual menace in the dialogue of teenage boys, even when only messing. As Scott, John Travers revels in the verbal grandstanding that his status as Alpha male bestows on him. He has a finely tuned grasp too of the repertoire of swaggers and poses of the bully. Ironically, his physical weakness is exposed Herons by PintSizedwhen Billy begins to stand up to him. Here, Anthony Boyle and Conor Doran play crucial supporting roles as Scott’s acolytes. They are able to play with sophistication the range of motivations and emotions that enable Scott to control them. Stephens has carefully placed clues to a richer inner life than they are capable of displaying around Scott. Boyle in particular is able to both reveal and quickly conceal the mental acuity of his character in slips of the tongue that demonstrate an extensive vocabulary and sensitivity to language.

A more difficult challenge faces Domhnall Herdman as Billy and Siobhan Kelly as Adele. Billy’s love of nature verges on sentimentality; but Herdman demonstrates both technical control and detailed understanding in exploring the range of responses Billy has to the circumstances in which he finds himself. His stillness here is always meaningful and his performance builds beautifully until he explodes. Adele occupies much of the same stage time as Billy, but the role is always one of a bystander, lacking any agency, a working class Ophelia torn between the cerebral Billy and the violent Scott. It is here that both Stephens’s writing and Hughes’s direction falter slightly, exposing Kelly in what occasionally feels like rather aimless activity.

Overall, however, this is a fine production that demonstrates that theatre for younger performers can both reflect the realities of life and offer challenges to performers far beyond the school musical. This cast demonstrates considerable acuity, engagement and stamina in meeting this challenge.

Tom Maguire is a Senior Lecturer in Theatre Studies at the University of Ulster. His latest book is Theatre for Young Audiences: A Critical Handbook (2013).

  • Review
  • Theatre

Herons by Simon Stephens

12 – 16 February, 2013

Produced by PintSized Productions
In Lyric Theatre (Naughton Studio)

Directed by Patsy Hughes

Lighting Design: Mick Draine

Sound Design: Aaron O’Neill

With: Anthony Boyle, Conor Doran, James Doran, Domhnall Herdman, Siobhan Kelly, John Travers