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Published on Friday, 23 August 2013

4 stars

Zoo (venue website)
2-10, 12-20, 22-26 Aug, 12:30pm-1:30pm
Reviewed by Ellen Macpherson

 Recommended for age 16+ only.
 Recommended for age 18+ only. Venue may not permit under-18's - check with venue before booking.

As soon as I walk into the theatre, I'm staring down the barrel of a gun held by a teary, shaking teenage boy. This should be your cue: if you don't like your theatre violent and gritty, get out now, because it's not going to get any easier to watch. Confronting and difficult as this play is, it's a gem to be found in the plethora of university theatre on offer at this years's Fringe. Just be prepared to face some rather late-night themes in the unusual time slot of 12:30 in the afternoon.

Herons, set in East London, is the story of Billy – a boy in Year 10, whose father witnessed and reported the vicious murder of a thirteen-year-old girl named Rachel by the town's resident gang. As a result of his father's actions, Billy is now facing death threats and taunts of humiliation from the gang leader's brother, sending him on the spiral into violent tendencies himself. All the action on stage takes place at the local fishing spot – a haunt of Billy and his father, and the place of Rachel's murder. I usually find one-set plays a little hard to follow, considering a lot of action has to take place off stage, but Herons is fine: this seems to be the hotspot of the town anyway.
The characters are recognisable teenage staples – Scott, the apish bully of a gang leader; Adele, an infatuated outcast of a girl; and Billy, troubled and misunderstood. The performances, however, successfully avoid becoming clichéd. Jamie Manton's Billy was endearing, but if you're looking for a protagonist to root for on moral grounds, you won't find it here; he isn't a bad guy, but he's not a particularly good one either - mostly due to circumstance.

Scott (played by the very burly and very talented George Watkins) is gratuitously violent, but also colder and more subtle than many other teenage villains I've seen on stage. There’s one moment, when he's quiet and frosty, which is absolutely terrifying – I waited with bated breath to see if the scene was going to take an awful turn. And you do have to wait. Only once did the play go in the direction I expected, and even then there was a twist. The rest of the time, you're left hanging in a tense atmosphere of suspense.

The climax is nauseatingly violent, but absolutely captivating. I've heard a few people say that it went too far, and admittedly it won't be to everyone's taste. I wouldn't say I enjoyed it, but it made for some stunning viewing. I could have done with a bit more closure from Simon Stephens’ script, as after such drama I expected a more concrete ending, but I felt like the play ended on a satisfactorily high note considering its subject matter. 

Amongst the swearing and aggression of this play, there's some real talent to be appreciated here. The acting from Exeter University is top-notch. It's not everyone's cup of tea, and I'm not even sure who to recommend this piece to – perhaps a market of disaffected teens? All I know is that I was enthralled. And if you don't mind the combination of potty mouths, violent physicality and lonely rumination, you might quite like Herons.

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