Review: Hero, by E.V. Crowe, at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

Last night, as the performance of Hero finished and the discussion on twitter started, I was asked whether I had seen Kin, E.V. Crowe’s previous work for the Royal Court. The answer is no, in fact I have no knowledge of any of her plays. Often the audience’s experience is framed by expectation, in this case my experience is framed by the lack of it.

Hero is the story of Danny, openly gay and teacher in a primary school, who lives with his husband Joe somewhere in the south of England. The couple, excited and apprehensive, has just entered the process for adopting a child. Their friends, Jamie and Lisa, are trying to have a baby themselves. A small incident snowballs, and the four characters make decisions or take action that will show them in different, often unflattering, light. The play says we might not be as liberal as we think. It’s not a startling thought but a personal and character driven response to that revelation would make for a fascinating play. Hero is frustratingly close to being that play, but too often it favours argument and gags at the expense of psychological truth.

The cracks start showing early on: Danny makes a deeply personal confession which is quickly forgotten and has no further relevance to the character. A joke is set up with a line that, in retrospect, seems unnatural. Once you start picking holes, it’s difficult to stop. The characters have punchlines and know their way around an argument, but struggle to emerge as fully rounded human beings. They often exist solely to make a point or tell a joke.

Which is not to say the production is boring or without merit. The direction by Jeremy Herrin is sprightly, dynamic and the tension, helped by the small intimate space, bounces around the walls. The performances carry the characters further than the text will allow. Liam Garrigan gives a warm intelligent performance that makes sense of Danny’s unrelenting optimism. His best moment comes towards the end: momentarily his easy disposition changes to reveal a harsher honesty. Tim Steed as Joe suggests strength and complexity beyond the character’s obvious stoicism. Daniel Mays as Jamie is supremely watchable, although his character remains deeply problematic: impossible to understand or sympathise with, Jamie’s side of the story is easily dismissed.

Production and play have enough intelligence and wit to sustain a keen interest, but too often the unrealised potential makes for a frustrating experience.

Revstan gives her own account of the viewing experience here.

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