Simon Stephens’ plays often leave me bruised. The bash me about in my seat, peeling back my abdominals and going to work directly on my gut. I flinch and wince, utterly rapt by the utterable. Morning, by contrast, let me be. Apart from a sharp intake of breath, as a rock smashed into a skull – as represented by a scaffold pole shattering through a plastic bin – I felt relatively at ease in its presence. My stomach intact, not tatters.
Yet when I left the theatre, I walked to the bar unthinkingly, poured a pint of water and stood, cross-eyed and shell-shocked, empty of all thoughts and feelings bar one: exhaustion. Perhaps the Fringe had frazzled my brain and perforated my defences, but Morning wrung me out. It is theatre as carbon monoxide: colourless, odourless and deadly.
Not seeing it coming, then, makes working out how and why it had this peculiar effect difficult. It is unremittingly uncaring. At its centre is Stephanie (Scarlet Bilham), a 17 year-old girl with no trace of basic human compunction or compassion. She does what she feels like with a flicker of thought for others or impact. Part of the golden-ticket generation, she expects bailing out as a birthright and that natural talent (sketching in her case) will see her through. She hands her brother’s iPod Touch to the friend she idolises, Cat (Joana Nastari). ‘Won’t he mind you stealing it?’ Cat asks. ‘Yeah probably.’ At home, upstairs, Stephanie’s mother is in the final stages of terminal cancer.
Stephanie and Cat honeytrap her boyfriend Stephen (Ted Reilly), luring him into the woods with fantasies of a threesome whirring through his brain. There they toy with him, hogtie him and obliterate him; children trapping and tearing the wings off a fly. Why? For kicks? As experiment? Because of mum or social pressures? Rather just because its possible, even because it’s in their nature. Stephanie is a girl, who kills. The world has become a virtual space like any other, in which only I exists, an obstacle to be navigated. The eyes aren’t windows to the soul, because there’s no one eyes to look in. They are one-way windows. Other souls don’t count.
The rest of the play concerns the repercussions. Stephanie carries on as usual, visiting Stephens parents, almost expecting him to reappear as if her actions have had no consequences. Her mother’s death splinters that view of the world. Her realisation that reality comes around and goes around, leads to a final, guttural rant, declaring the world and all its contents shit, that grows from hellish tantrum to nihilistic raving. ‘There is only terror. There is no hope.’
Sean Holmes’ production for the Lyric Hammersmith’s Young Company – an admirable decision in itself on the grounds of refusing to see young people’s theatre as a subsidiary – takes place on a bare stage bar the apparatus of a crime scene, or murder investigation. The world is to be worked out. Cold, bleaching lights spot nothing in particular. A clinical white tent, the sort that house dead bodies in woods, stands to the side. An industrial fridge and a fish tank provide strange trappings of domesticity and a laboratory. At the back of the stage, a technician sits in front of his computer. He hardly moves, only turning round to look at the action occasionally. Mostly he stares at the screen, a picture of atomised, addled and screen-addicted youth. In many ways he is Morning’s pivot.
The writing is even more detached than Stephens’ usual dislocated style. In fact, it feels like notation, almost like Braille. The teenage cast play it seemingly without action or intention. Sentences are blurted at other people. Even expressions of warmth or affection feel like accusatory charges. This is cold, cold and unfeeling.
And yet, I can’t help but feel that it’s tries too hard, so determined to paint the world in shadow that it paints a shadow, but not the world. Stephanie doesn’t feel real, but she doesn’t feel real because she has no humanity, she is motiveless and unrepentant, an idea rather than a person. In the end, I think that’s it: I didn’t believe a jot of Morning, but sitting in its presence – a black hole artwork – utterly eviscerates the viewer. Morning didn’t pound my guts, it ran off with them. When I stood, I collapsed.