by guest critic Liam Rees
Alex Gwyther’s Eyes Closed, Ears Covered is a slippery play that continuously raises questions. We’re immediately presented with Alyson Cummins’ concrete-grey, angular set, suggestive of a brutalist play park in a rundown housing estate. A recording of a distressed phone call to the police about a pair of young boys and a terrible act of violence adds tension. Gwyther’s script immediately has us hooked with the right amount of specific details to suggest what may have occurred whilst not to revealing too much.
What follows is a police interrogation with two young boys, Aaron and Seb (played by Danny-Boy Hatchard and Joe Idris-Roberts, respectively) intercut with flashbacks to them bunking off school and the events leading up to an incident. It’s far from an original storytelling format but it’s highly effective and keeps us engaged.
Hatchard plays Aaron with plenty of swagger and mischief, clearly enjoying toying with the police and their patronising questions. When referring to Seb, it’s clear that Aaron is firmly in control of him. There are moments uncomfortably reminiscent of Jon Venables, Robert Thompson and Jamie Bulger. His physicality accurately portrays Aaron’s young age but the dialogue makes it clear that this is a boy who’s grown up too soon.
In choosing to have the adults characters only appear via voiceovers, director Derek Anderson, effectively places the audience in the position of the two young boys. During the flashbacks, Jonnie Riordan’s movement direction works excellently with Norvydas Genys’ lighting design to bring all the different locations to life, making the characters and situation much more believable. There are some points where the choices behind the lighting design isn’t clear as it moves from fairly realistic to more abstract but that’s a minor quibble and doesn’t hinder the overall performance.
The decision to include an interval has mixed results. Whilst it slightly kills the pace that built up during Aaron’s interview, it also serves to let us consider what had happened, if we can trust what Aaron has said, and allow for a shift in pace and tone for Seb’s perspective in the second half. Gwyther then subverts our expectations by showing us Seb’s family experiences rather than simply telling us, as was the case in the first half. However Anderson also makes sure to present us with Seb’s innocent perspective and not to be too heavy handed in the depictions of his dysfunctional family. The younger, more oblivious Seb is harder to portray convincingly, but Idris-Roberts’ physicality and mannerisms succeed. Phoebe Miller brings a nice change in energy as Seb’s mum, Lily. She is clearly directed to play Seb’s idealised version of his mum. It’s a subtle decision with a big pay off that allows the darkness of the writing to come through without being too on the nose.
Overall, the creative team succeed in creating an intriguing and, crucially, moving piece of theatre about tainted innocence, violence, and trauma that doesn’t seek to provide easy answers.
Eyes Closed, Ears Covered runs through 30 September.
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