One summer night, three teenagers meet in a Cornish cave to enact their version of an Ancient Greek ritual: the Eleusinian Mysteries. Ina, her boyfriend Holman, and Tre have just taken their A-Levels. In a matter of weeks they will be heading out to work or leaving for university, and life as they know it will change forever.
Nick Whitby (author of The Complaint which ran at the same Downstairs theatre at the Hampstead in 2012) gives us 75 minutes of beautifully judged teenage friendships and relationships, which can be wonderfully, refreshingly simple and yet also painfully complicated. Whitby is excellent at building up a sense of the characters’ desire to escape their narrow lives and the restrictions of youth and yet we also sense their fear and trepidation as they begin, even now, to take small steps towards the adults they will become, and start to realise what that change will mean.
The cast is strong – particularly Alex Griffin-Griffiths as Tre, who has long nursed an unrequited love for Ina – and they work well together to create a believable shared history for their characters; there’s a lovely ease and familiarity between them. They are all good at conveying a sense of dangerous excitement at what they are about to do – they have procured some strong hallucinogens over the internet to approximate the initiation ceremony – as well as the frightening effects of the drugs once they take effect. Whitby gives Ina a beautiful line towards the end of the play as they’re recovering from their bad trip: ‘You can’t let your neighbour starve when you’ve been through something like that together,’ she says, offering an explanation as to what the rituals might have meant for the Ancient Greeks. This line takes on a deeper resonance in a time when we are flooded with stories about the rise in poverty and the huge increase in the number of people forced to resort to food banks, but it’s also moving in relation to this trio’s friendship: even though they’re naive and reckless in what they’ve just done, there’s something wonderful about it; it’s a shared experience that will forever bind them together no matter where they end up.
Luckily both the writing and the performances are strong, for otherwise they might well have been overshadowed by the technical elements of the production – the set, lighting and sound design – which are superb. Ina, Holman and Tre are physically cut off from the world in a cave, with the tide rising around them, and Georgia Lowe has designed a dark, dank space complete with watery entrance and various pools. Lowe’s set contributes beautifully to the sense of the characters’ isolation, but she has also created a small, incredibly intimate space, so while we are very much looking in on the actors, we do still feel a sense of being a part of their own separate world. Real fire on stage provides much of the light in the production, casting spectral shadows on the wet walls of the cave and helping to build tension and the idea that danger could be lurking anywhere, while John Leonard’s sound design brings the sea to life, reminding us that Ina, Holman and Tre are trapped until the tide ebbs once more. Leonard has also scripted a constant dripping within the cave, the sound of which builds and grows as the play progresses, taking on an ominous quality as the kids suffer the side effects of the drugs and as they divulge their deepest secrets . . .