Saturday, 10 February 2018

Theatre review: Black Mountain

The two women in Paines Plough's three-strong rep cast dominated Out of Love, now Hasan Dixon gets to take centre stage in Brad Birch's Black Mountain. He plays Paul, who 's just arrived at a remote holiday home with Rebecca (Katie Elin-Salt.) The two are staying in separate bedrooms, an early indication that this isn't a straightforward holiday; they are, or at least were a couple, but he's hurt her and this is a last-ditch attempt to take some time together and talk over whether they have a future. He starts with at the very least the appearance of calm and optimism, she's spiky and curt with him but quickly starts to relax even as he goes the other way, becoming anxious and jumpy. This is because he's hiding the fact that Helen (Sally Messham) had stalked the pair to the side of a mountain.

Birch has fun informing us from the start that we're in thriller territory with the mention that the house is well-stocked with Stephen King books (is there one particular famous house in the middle of nowhere we should be reminded of?) and an axe that mysteriously goes missing.

There might be a tongue-in-cheek element to the setup but between Peter Small's lighting flashing dangerously and Dominic Kennedy's discordant piano music, James Grieve gets a few real jumps and chills in as Paul tries to repair his relationship without losing his mind in the process, and you start to wonder how literally Rebecca means it when she says she wants him to feel pain that matches hers. Given this is a play that relies heavily on being cryptic about what's really going on, it's probably safest to consider the rest of this review as needing a SPOILER ALERT.

Given the last Brad Birch play I saw in this theatre it's not surprising if, as soon as the lights start flickering whenever Paul is confronted with a difficult question, I immediately wondered to what extent we were inside his mental breakdown. A more interesting question as the play continues is whether Rebecca is gaslighting him into this breakdown. Dixon and Elin-Salt's performances nicely complement each other, his getting more erratic as hers gets more calmly sinister. With red herrings and a plot that's down to the audience to make up its mind on, this is an unpretentiously solid, enjoyable thriller.

Black Mountain by Brad Birch is booking in repertory until the 3rd of March at the Orange Tree Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Jonathan Keenan.

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