The story of kids bunking off school in search of grand adventure is a common plot device visible in films such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the fantasies of many teenagers. Alex Gwyther’s Eyes Closed, Ears Covered breathes new life into the story not by focusing on the heroic escapades of the protagonists or the ingenuity of their planning but by exploring the darker side of a scenario in which a pair of teenagers may want to leave everything behind.
The play begins with tragedy in the form of a 911 call, the full details of which the audience spends the entire play trying to figure out. We meet the street smart and confident Aaron who is being questioned by the police about an incident that has occurred on Brighton beach. Secretive and defensive Aaron is the sole protector of his best friend Seb who is his complete opposite.
As the play progresses we switch between Aaron being interrogated by the police whose voices we can hear through the intercom and the trip itself which unfolds before us. We learn that the purpose of the trip was to visit Seb’s mother who we are told is waiting for them in Brighton; that the two are unhappy at school where they are social outcasts, and that Seb has an unhappy relationship with his Dad. And though the play begins with typical tropes aplenty such as the locker room talk of teenage boys, urban myths about a punch taught by Xiaolin monks that can dent someone’s face and 80’s clothing, it quickly descends into something darker. Aaron’s behaviour becomes increasingly volatile both with the police and with Seb during their adventure and he repeatedly hits out at both for no apparent reason. Similarly, his unwillingness to talk with the police lest he divulge their “secrets” and the amount of influence he has over Seb starts to alarm the audience.
Although Danny-Boy Hatchard does a brilliant job of playing Aaron, switching moods convincingly in an instant, the overall pace of the first act is a bit too slow at times and the frustration of the police is eventually mirrored by the audience who just want to get more details about the incident. The first act does an amazing job of setting up the second, introducing intricate details that will be crucial to the plot but the play’s drama is too heavily weighted in favour of the second act.
The second act follows a similar formula with Seb, played by Joe Idris-Roberts, being interviewed by the police about an earlier trip to Brighton some years ago and introduces the character of his mother, played by Phoebe Thomas. Unevenly using projection it firstly presents Thomas’ character as ethereal and dream-like beckoning the two to Brighton and then solidly develops this image to reveal a chain-smoking woman just trying to survive difficult circumstances. With innovative staging we feel the ominous presence of Seb’s father who we never see nor hear but fear all same. Idris-Roberts gives a powerhouse performance which gives nuanced life to the character of Seb, displaying a seemingly infinite amount of complex emotions effortlessly.
Despite its unevenness Eyes Closed, Ears Covered is an intelligent, well-crafted and important play well worth seeing.
Eyes Closed, Ears Covered is currently playing at The Bunker Theatre until 30th September.
Photo: Anton Belmonte for 176 Flamingo Lane