Eyes Closed, Ears Covered
16th September 2017
As it approaches the celebration of its first completed year of operations, this subterranean, contemporary space presents yet another discovery of a fascinating script with a fresh, incisive view of today's world. The director, Derek Anderson, who we remember vividly for his ‘Sweeney Todd' at the short-lived Twickenham Theatre, approached the venue with this project, a new work by Alex Gwyther that tells a story of fractured, hopeless personalities and their sad, aimless lives. The first half is rather reminiscent of Philip Ridley's dysfunctional soldiers, we feel we know where we are with them and their nasty, brutish and short lives. But there is more to it than that. Gwyther has more tricks up his sleeve than he first reveals, and there is much fun to be had as the play moves into its second act in seeing how he produces twists and turns in the plot, and revelations of an increasingly bizarre kind. In Anderson's capable hands, the action moves lucidly along, awash with Norvydas Genys' arresting lighting and video design, and enlivened by Jonnie Riordan's exuberant bursts of movement, while Jon McLeod fills the air with his music and sound design. For all this, Alyson Cummins provides an apparently innocuous staging, a raised, contoured podium, framed above by panels around the lighting array.
In this terrain, we observe the progression of the cast of three: Danny-Boy Hatchard is, apparently, the central character, whose furious railing at the world is interrupted by disembodied voice-overs from a police interviewer. This serious tone, however, is leavened by his chummy cavorting with admiring side-kick, Joe Idris-Roberts' Seb, who in his turn is also subjected to interrogation of a rather friendlier, less combative water. Little by little, we find out about a trip the pair have taken to the seaside, where something awful then occurred. The introduction of a third ‘live action' character, Phoebe Thomas' Lily, elaborates upon and amplifies their situation. This stark, cruel world of theirs, nevertheless, is never allowed to get far away, and we do find ourselves thinking of the harshness of Buechner or Artaud, as they seem trapped and doomed to succumb to forces they can neither comprehend nor master. In the manner of a classical dramatist, Gwyther stalls his unfolding of narrative as much as he can, and the work becomes an exercise in watching the hard done by characters getting on with things until such time as we realise that they can no longer be pursued.
The impenetrability of much of the action, though, does make for a somewhat detached and cool experience: intellectual bewilderment seems to triumph over empathetic response rather more often than might be desired. Hatchard and Thomas are both seasoned television performers, and they bring much minute detail to their characterizations, while Idris-Roberts, recently out of RADA, has a more ‘rep' feel to his CV (two Alan Bennetts, Shaw and a rock opera); they know how to make even the most astringent material ‘humane', and so does their director, but Gwyther doesn't make it easy for them. Ultimately, much of the surface ‘meaning' of the drama seems elusive, obscure, rather as if one were really being invited to return and have another go and deciphering its arcane by-ways. Against that impression, the second act in particular presents us with a splendid cascade of theatrical effects that are a delight in themselves, not least in the dizzying visual and acoustic changes wrought by the 450-odd cues in the 90 minutes or so of playing time.
It's fascinating to see and clearly points towards interesting and thought-provoking new talents. Quite what it all might mean is, possibly, something that only individual audience members will be able to decipher.