Writers: Bebe Barry and Tony Barry
Director: Ben Woodhall
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
David Bowie’s 1972 performance of Starman on Top of the Pops has become the stuff of legend. The arm drooped affectionately around Mick Robson’s shoulder. Addressing the line “I had to phone someone so I picked on you-hoo-oo” to the viewer at home. To many a teenager at home, staying quiet so one could record the whole programme on a cassette recorder, there had never been anything like it.
This is the starting point for Heroes, a fascinating 1972-set coming-of-age drama from the father and daughter writing team of Tony and Bebe Barry. Barry junior plays Billie, a 15-year-old tearaway whose friendship with clean-cut Joe (Henry Lewis) is frowned upon by the latter’s churchgoing family.
Although they come from very different families, the chemistry between Barry and Lewis makes their otherwise unlikely friendship plausible. When they team up with Greg Birks’s photography-obsessed Tinhead, it feels as if the trio are bonded in their rejection by their classmates.
That Billie is being subjected to domestic abuse by her alcoholic father is signposted from the off; her evident frustration of feeling written off by those who notice her bruises, but choose to ignore them, is the catalyst for the trio to choose to run away to London in the hope of seeing their hero live in concert.
Once in London, the homeless children fall in with some squatters who are similarly obsessed with Bowie, who at the time was captivating the music world with his Ziggy Stardust persona.
As with may fringe theatre companies, there is less difference between actors’ actual ages than is implied in the characters. Under Ben Woodhall’s direction, that difference seems to matter less: the squatters, we believe, have had to grow up quicker than the trio of 15-year-olds from leafy Tonbridge.
When they are not called upon to dance to distract from the mechanics of scene changing, the women of the squat are the most rounded of the older characters. Talia Pick’s spiky Pinkie and Lily Smith’s maternal Karen come into their own in a moving scene where Billie opens up for the first time about the extent of abuse she has faced.
In contrast, Dan Ciotkowski’s David, ostensibly the head of the household, suffers from an inconsistent personality, and a subplot to his background as a drug dealer seem to be heading in a direction that the play abandons without resolution.
Barry’s performance as the abused and defensive Billie is restrained and emotional, ensuring that one gets fully invested in her attempts to overcome her trauma.
The relationship between Barry, Lewis and a subtly underplaying Birks forms the real heart of the piece, and helps ensure that Heroes is a solid piece of new writing that has the scope to escape the confines of the fringe.
Continues until May 11 | Image: Contributed