Pros: The confident and able cast deliver this play with conviction, in an unusual venue that makes it stand out even more.
Cons: A weaker second act loses the flow (and the plot), leading to a distressing climax.
Eyes Closed, Ears Covered is a full-on piece of theatre: it demands attention, but also scrutiny. On the surface, we see two teenage boys bunking off school for the day, back in 1986. They swap grim Woking and the school bus for a ‘little adventure’ in Brighton (no offence to the people of Woking, but who wouldn’t?). Yet this day trip is pretty sacred to the impressionable Seb (Joe Idris-Roberts) and his older, wiser friend Aaron (the excellent Danny-Boy Hatchard). They’re on the trail of Seb’s mum, who he hasn’t seen in years, but he knows she will be waiting for him by the sea at Brighton.
You really have to pay attention to the sinister undertones in Alex Gwyther’s script, that seep slowly into laddish banter about school and girls and fights, but because the opening scene shows Aaron being interviewed at Brighton Police Station, you know things won’t end well. It seems a violent showdown worthy of Brighton Rock has taken place on the beach, but how? And why?
Aaron and Seb’s codependent relationship is quickly established in their body language, speech, costumes and props. They complement each other: Aaron is bomber jacket-clad, cocky and swaggering, forever effing and blinding, whilst Seb is wide-eyed, hunched over in his yellow mac and sensible rucksack, never quite sure of himself. Seb dutifully brings the day’s equipment, including stolen money, Marmite sandwiches and a handy weapon, and Aaron makes use of them.
Throughout Eyes Closed, music and sound designer Jon McLeod adds voiceovers of supporting characters: police officers, other boys from school, and so on. This mostly works well, but at times it can be frustrating to have so many unseen characters on what’s already a minimalist set (by Alyson Cummings).
The play is punctuated by questions from the police – to Aaron in Act One and Seb in Act Two – but the first half is more nuanced, full of jokes between the boys, and a brilliant Parkour-influenced dash through the alleys and backstreets. The theatre’s underground setting feels perfect, giving the audience a quick burst of air above ground at the interval, before descending for a darker second half. Act Two loses the light-hearted façade and introduces Lily, Seb’s mum (Phoebe Thomas), in flashbacks to 1982. It becomes harder to watch as the mood intensifies and Lily’s torment is revealed, accompanied by McLeod’s sound recordings of aural disturbance, hinting at the repercussions to follow four years later. Shortly into Act Two, unsettling parallels emerge between Lily and Aaron, and not simply because they’re both Seb’s confidantes.
The big reveal takes this play in an extreme direction. Without revealing spoilers, a four-year spell of major psychosis, possibly schizophrenia, seems to have gone unnoticed. I’d be interested to know if people with the same condition (or their psychiatrists, or mental health charities) were consulted in the writing process, as schizophrenics are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. The heightened portrayal of a mental health crisis, where hallucinations place other people in danger, could increase stigma instead of raising awareness. This isn’t a criticism of the actors, who all work their socks off, but the plot twist detracts from the domestic violence awareness message and, just like Seb’s sandwiches, the ending to Eyes Closed, Ears Covered has the Marmite effect. Had the ending been workshopped further, with more outside input, this play could have had an equally dramatic but much more dignified conclusion, which would truly make it a must-see.
Author: Alex Gwyther
Director: Derek Anderson
Producers: Joel Fisher for The Bunker Theatre/ Alfred Taylor-Gaunt
Box Office: 0207 234 0486
Booking Link: https://www.bunkertheatre.com/whats-on/eyes-closed-ears-covered
Booking Until: 30 September 2017