One Director, Two Plays, Three Actors, One Hit

Liz Vercoe sees Black Mountain and Out of Love at the Orange Tree Theatre

Sally Messham and Katie Elin-Salt in Out Of Love. Picture: Jonathan Keenan

For "Black Mountain" by Brad Birch we enter a wonderfully atmospheric theatre, thick with mist and only a circle of light on the floor illuminating its black space. Within this loop we meet Paul (Hasan Dixon) and Rebecca (Katie Elin-Salt) who, with tremendous sound effects from Dominic Kennedy, successfully conjure up for us a remote cottage in the woods, where the sun barely breaks through the dense trees. Rebecca is distant, inwardly looking at some other space or time; Paul over-eager to please, say and do the right thing.

We deduce the plan is to repair a past relationship but there is so little chemistry between the two, you feel like saying, oh just go home and don't bother. Things are not going well when out of the blackness appears a third spectral figure, Helen (Sally Messham). At face value she appears real, although you almost want her to be an illusion. She and Paul do have something going, evidenced in the little steps towards each other, the darting hand that almost but does not quite touch a cheek; there is a softness and yielding. She wants Paul to come away. "Go," we say, although that would bring the play to rather an abrupt end.

Back on their own, Rebecca suggests a climb up the mountain for which Paul has inadequate footwear. More great sound effects take us to the dizzy windswept heights where Rebecca sets out her wishes.

What should turn into a tight psychological thriller at this point, just doesn't. Over the second half of the 70-minute play there is just not enough threat or even realisation by Paul that anything much is amiss. He just seems to be puzzled and have blisters. Perhaps he never saw the movie "Misery", a chilling Stephen King tale of female bitterness, but anyone who has will find it anticipates, and so spoils, the surprise of this play.

Writer Brad Birch has an awful lot to live up to after scaling the peaks with his wonderful play "The Brink" which opened at the Orange Tree back in 2016. But where that showed a real understanding of the tricks minds can play under duress, this "Black Mountain" remains in the foothills of insight.

Hasan Dixon and Katie Elin-Salt in Black Mountain. Picture: Jonathan Keenan

In a neat bit of scheduling The Orange Tree is running two new plays from the Paines Plough company in repertory. Each is from a different writer but all have the same three actors and are directed by James Grieve.

So, on the following night to "Out of Love" by Elinor Cook presents the circle of light as, initially, a children's playground, with "besties" Lorna (Sally Messham) and Grace (Katie Elin-Salt) being plagued by nits and playing "weddings" with bemused schoolmate George (Hasan Dixon). Grace is the natural leader: bossy, demanding and yet totally dependent on Lorna, whose greatest fear is of being alone.

Over the next 70 fast-paced minutes we to and fro through the damaged lives of these girls, with each actress effortlessly shifting backwards and forwards though their different selves at 10, 13, 16, 20 and grown – even morphing into their own mothers in a lump-in-throat scene of wishful thinking about the future of their unborn daughters. Their male foils are provided by the eight characters played by Hasan Dixon.

The title "Out of Love" can be read in all its variations in this thoughtful play that scoops up industrial decline, small-town pressures and tedium, aspiration and lack of confidence, inter-generational conflict, birth, life and, too often, death. Holding this all together in its fragile hands is the love of two friends, through thick and crushingly thin. Wonderful.

Liz Vercoe

February 8, 2018