(3 / 5)
(4 / 5)
The Roundabout Theatre is small – and though I initially appreciated the intimacy of the compact audience, as soon as the lights dimmed, I began to experience intense claustrophobia. This, I believe, was intentional on behalf of the production team, who succeeded tremendously in their apparent attempt at creating an almost Artaudian production. I cannot distinguish a moment in which I was not on edge, or physically quivering, for the relentless mystery of the play. Certainly, Brad Birch’s ‘Black Mountain’ is the most refreshingly original, and impressively sinister play that I have ever witnessed.
Hasan Dixon portrayed Paul with an extraordinarily potent, compelling, and convincing performance; so much so that one may mistake his acting for genuine fear and frustration. This, naturally, only strengthened the air of threat that seemed to consume the theatre as effectively as the lingering clouds of mist (which, equally, were outstandingly atmospheric). His portrayal was, above all, believable – and that is predominantly what allowed for the exponentially threatening atmosphere that left me feeling equally as terrified as Paul himself.
Sally Messham as Helen was extremely well played, and though the actress’ characterisation of the character was beyond satisfactory, the character itself was difficult to understand. Helen’s flaws seemed to be ingrained not in Messham’s performance, but in the script itself, as a character who was initially presented as understanding and concerned for Paul’s wellbeing, abruptly became depraved and psychopathic; which seemed too unrealistic, even for this play
In point of fact, I found that the script lacked substance. Most of the action and thrill derived largely from the physicality and manner of the actors, as well as the technical and atmospheric devices employed. I believe that, had I not viewed this play in the intimacy of the round, and thus felt so closely involved within the performance, the dialogue would not have been sufficiently strong or theatrical enough to create much tension at all.
For a large part of the play, Katie Elin-Salt’s portrayal of Rebecca was almost frustratingly unconvincing, and was mostly comprised of repetitive gestures and an unchanging tone of voice. In contrast to Dixon’s consistently adaptable tone and manner, Elin-Salt’s performance did not appear to vary much at all, and became very unstimulating, very quickly. However, I began to understand the characterisation only in the final moments of the play, when Rebecca’s soullessness became intensely ominous, and I started to truly appreciate the darkness of the character. I truly regret that this was only prominent within the final ten minutes.
Although the set itself was essentially non-existent, the production was impressively and ingeniously staged, and though techniques such as sudden descents into darkness were frequently adopted, i was equally as stupefied by the final burst or strobe of glaring light than I was by the first. My feelings of paranoia and entrapment were prominent and consistent throughout the entire performance (though this was certainly not unpleasant – I acknowledged and appreciated the psychological thrill). Additionally, the employment of a single torch on stage whilst the remainder of the theatre remained in absolute darkness, as well as the frequent ear-splitting screams, were profoundly, and intriguingly, effective. Equally, the tension was enhanced tremendously during the moment in which Elin-Salt and Messham disappeared from audience view and ran frantically around the exterior of the seating area. Particularly during this moment, their menace felt like a personal threat.
‘Black Mountain’ was so consistently immersive, and felt so isolated from the world outside the theatre, I had to remind myself on numerous occasions throughout that it was merely a performance.
Welcome to Roundabout. This unique pop-up theatre is taking the UK by storm. It is a masterful piece of engineering. Fully transportable, it is popping up in the most unlikely of places, including car parks, churchyards, seafronts, and housing estates. It takes six people about a day to construct, and needs nothing more than an Allen key to assemble. It is innovative, ingenious and distinctive. Its round white body is certainly noticeable alongside Theatr Clwyd, its current resting place. To have the opportunity to watch a play inside this intriguing structure was a very thrilling prospect.
The early signs were less than promising. Walking in, I could hardly see where I was going. The darkness was overwhelming. The theatre itself wasn’t much better. It was like entering a poorly-lit spaceship. I’d wandered onto the set of an early Doctor Who. I’d been transported back to the age of the 1950s B-movie. The media images seen beforehand only compounded matters further. It was a lot smaller than the press photos had made out. A technical fault at the start meant that my excitable early expectations were now almost entirely extinguished. I was really disappointed. But then the play began.
Black Mountain is a psychological thriller of the highest degree. It sees Rebecca (Katie Elin-Salt) and Paul (Hasan Dixon) travel to an isolated house in the country in an attempt to save their relationship. Writer Brad Birch has created an intriguing and unsettling plot that bubbles away with tension and drip feeds paranoia. The engrossing nature of his script meant that my initial shortcomings quickly dissipated. The intimacy of the space became its strength rather than a distractive weakness. The lighting effects used throughout were essential in the creation of a dark and disturbing tale.
Dixon is exceptional as the stuttering Paul. He conveys a sense of deep discomfort with relative ease. You can tell his character is walking on eggshells. He has a secret to hide from his wife Rebecca. She knows something is going on, but will he admit it? Birch doesn’t make it easy. Elin-Salt brings an intensity of strength to Rebecca that makes her appear a very confident woman. It is testament to her acting skills, however, that this confident exterior also harbours an unsettling tone. There is something deeper brewing beneath the surface. She is holding on to something. But what is it? Birch draws this out across sixty compelling minutes with his absorbing dialogue.
If you enjoyed recent television dramas The Replacement and Doctor Foster, this will be another similar storyline to savour. In some ways, the live action makes for an even greater thrill ride through the tempestuous relationships on stage, particularly as Rebecca turns the screw and the appearance of Helen (Sally Messham) muddies the waters for Paul. It becomes an increasingly sinister play, utterly gripping and completely enthralling. Ultimately, I came out of the darkness having seen the light.
Black Mountain is an absorbing play. The cast are absolutely fantastic and the direction is excellent. There may be some improvements to be made on the initial entrance to the Roundabout theatre. There is nothing but positive feedback on its content here though. An impressive debut for Paines Plough in North East Wales.
To find out more about Roundabout Theatre, click here.
Thursday 13th July 2017 Roundabout Pop up Theatre
Written by Brad Birch
Starring Hasan Dixon, Katie Elin-Salt and Sally Messham
Directed by awarding winning James Grieve Black Mountain is a disturbing physiological thriller that explores the darkest side of relationships. Set over a five day period, this one act play holds the audience in the middle of its white knuckle clenched palm. With a cast of three and brimming with expression the plays world premier was in the grounds of Theatre Clwyd in Paines Plough, Roundabout Popup theatre. With a limited space, a couple of props namely a torch and (another item I shall not name for fear of ruining the plot) and extremely clever and well timed lighting, the focus was solely on the acting. Thankfully the actors were all highly skilled and more than capable of delivering the multifaceted characterisations this play demanded.
I don’t want to give the plot away, as I think new stories are so few and far between in the theatre they should be cherished and discovered fresh by each audience. I will say from the get go the story had you guessing – why where they there ? What was their story ? What was really going on ? The biggest question I had constantly going on however was – who’s side was I on? This type of dilemma I have a love hate relationship with. I admire writers who can produce characters who are so much more than the words on the page – and all three of these characters clearly are. We are never given the full story – just hints as to what has happened and with one word the characters / actors spoke volumes. Speech was both passionate yet comic, weak yet strong, emotional yet pathetic – just as it is in everyday life .
The Roundabout pop up theatre is not a big space, although cleverly designed to seat a decent sized audience the actual stage space is small, fortunately for this play the close proximately to each other and the audience only added to heighten dramatic tension. I couldn’t help thinking how the play would work on a normal stage with props and staging I don’t think anything would be gained by setting the play differently, in fact I would suggest tension may be lost if the play had ran in a more naturalistic setting.
As it was, it certainly held jump out of your seat moments, if not jump out of your skin!
The Playwright Brad Birch
Well this dish had been well seasoned and cooked to a very high standard, my only reservation was the ending – without wanting to give anything away I would have been happier if there had been a final glimpse to just tie up the ending – a sprig of parsley – just for clarification – but that does go against the grain of how the play ran – there was something along the vein of The Tales of The Unexpected about the story, you thought you knew what was coming, then you never, then you did, then what you thought half an hour earlier turned out to be right all along!
Overall this was a very enjoyable piece of theatre made all the more exciting by the fact it is being performed in a portable theatre that can literally be popped up at the road side if needed. (I support anything that involves theatre getting to the people or people getting to the theatre).
Black Mountain will be showing at Theatr Clwyd, Mold until 21st July and after then it will be touring various venues including Edinburgh Fringe before concluding at the Orange Tree Theatre in March 2018.
For anyone who likes their drama with a twist and sting in the tale this is a definite!