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Review: Eyes Closed, Ears Covered (The Bunker)

Derek Anderson directs this new play from Alex Gwyther

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

There is an intriguing ambiguity at the heart of Alex Gwyther's promising psychological thriller that makes it hard to write about without giving away too much. Suffice it to say that at the interval myself and the friend I went with had quite different takes on what we had just watched. In the second half the premise of the piece becomes clearer in a couple of moments that are as chilling as they are theatrically satisfying, despite a number of plot-related questions remaining, although that feels like a deliberate element in the storytelling rather than a flaw.

What I can tell you is that it is set in the early 1980s – thereby refreshingly freeing itself from the trendy trammels of texting and cyberbullying that inevitably seems to dominate most modern tales of troubled teens – and it appears, at first, to be about a pair of mismatched boys who bunked off school together, ran away to the seaside and committed a heinous crime.

There are shades of Curious Incident in the theme of a child with problems relating to the world around him haunted by an adored absent mother, and the device of much of the story being pieced together by disembodied voices. Both boys – cocky, volatile Aaron (Danny-Boy Hatchard) and nervy, vulnerable Seb (Joe Idris-Roberts) – are under interrogation for their part in the murder of another child, but their relationship with each other turns out to be far more complex and fascinating than anything else in the play, and that really is all that can be said without spoiling it. The themes of identity, mental health and the aftermath of trauma are staples of the thriller genre but they are deployed with originality and panache here.

In all honesty there isn't much of a sense of the 1980s beyond the bombastic soundtrack playing before the show and during the interval (I may be wrong here, but I don't think the term "cockwomble" had been invented then) and some of the dialogue struggles. Despite that, Derek Anderson's fleet, economical production genuinely grips, in no small part due to the fine, committed performances of Hatchard and Idris-Roberts, both of whom prove impressively able to turn on a proverbial dime, from scared, acquiescent youngsters to scarily raging forces of nature.

Phoebe Thomas has a harder task as the ghost-like mother figure but is nonetheless touching and convincing. Whether she is a fully realised character or simply a plot device is a question, but again not necessarily a flaw in the play.

Jonnie Riordan's nicely realised movement recalls early Frantic Assembly, and the atmospheric lighting and projections by Norvydas Genys successfully differentiates between the various locales of the narrative.

It will be interesting to see what Gwyther comes up with next: on the basis of this, he is a terrific storyteller with a pleasingly populist touch, and Anderson's inventive, finely acted staging makes this a grimly enjoyable head scratcher.

Eyes Closed, Ears Covered runs at The Bunker until 30 September.