Black Mountain – February 2018

Experience: 5/10

Written by Brad Birch

Directed by James Grieve

Company: Orange Tree/Paines Plough/Theatre Clwyd

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 15th February 2018

Steve and I take the view that it’s important to support new writing, but that sitting through it can be a bit hit-and-miss. We console ourselves with the thought that the less good plays are a kind of necessary payment for the better ones. After today, we’re well in credit. Much as we like the Orange Tree and its work, this co-production left a lot to be desired. The actors, as usual, did a decent job with the scripts they were given, and the audience in general seemed to appreciate the performance well enough. We found it rather banal, with little of interest in either the relationships or the ideas.

The set was very plain, even for the Orange Tree: just a dark floor with an inset circle of LED lights. Before the start there was some ‘music’ playing, mainly droning chords, and the combination of gloomy blue lighting and thick mist made it harder than usual to find our seats. Being on the end of the front right row, I found I was also jostled and bumped several times, so we weren’t the only ones having difficulty in the darkness.

The play began with a loud chord – made me jump, and I wasn’t alone – and a flash of light. A gentle blue spot light appeared in the middle of the stage, and there was the sound of rain together with a car arriving. The car doors slammed shut, and a woman walked into the middle of the stage. A man joined her, and their conversation suggested a relationship, but not an intimate one. Gradually we learned that this was Rebecca (Katie Elin-Salt) and Paul (Hasan Dixon) who were trying to work through their relationship. She was distant, while he was eager to please. Things became complicated when another woman, Helen (Sally Messham) arrived: from her conversation with Paul it was clear they’d previously been an item and that she wasn’t happy about their break-up.

So far, it all seemed typically bunny-boiler. However, the short scenes eventually revealed a darker secret, and the play closed with a spotlight on an axe and the sounds of car doors closing and the car driving off while birds sang. I confess to resting my eyes during some of the middle bit – didn’t manage to nod off completely – but even so, I was well aware of the interactions, and the underlying sense of menace. The ending wasn’t much of a surprise, though I did think they could have cut the number of tableaux, and while I felt the writing was OK, there wasn’t much there to interest us.

The performance style was unusual, and while it worked well enough in some respects, it also gave the play a sense of being generic, and not rooted in real characters (probably just as well). The cast wore modern clothes, there were no furniture or props, and very little touching. When a physical interaction was happening, they mostly mimed it, such as when Rebecca took the wood splinter out of Paul’s hand – she just stood at the edge of the circle while he held out his hand in the middle of the stage and reacted as if she was taking the splinter out. This level of detachment felt very empty after a while and contributed to my lack of enjoyment. We both wondered early on if Helen was really there, or just a figment of Paul’s imagination, perhaps even a ghost? But she definitely existed, as we found out.

I’m not sure if this play would have benefitted from a different staging, but at times I felt I was watching acting exercises rather than a proper performance. The use of flickering lights didn’t add anything to the production as far as I was concerned, and there was no real depth to the characters. There was just enough going on to keep my attention for the first half, but after that I began to feel bored. Fortunately, the running time was only one hour ten minutes. Not one to see again, though Brad Birch won’t be going on the “Danger, Will Robinson” list just yet.

© 2018 Sheila Evans at

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