Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Black Mountain

Brad Birch
Paines Plough, Theatr Clwyd and Orange Tree Theatre
The Lowry, The Roundabout, Little Hulton 
07 September 2017 to 09 September 2017

Hosting Paines Plough’s pop-up venue, The Roundabout, gives The Lowry the chance to make a very practical demonstration of its determination to take theatre to the wider Salford community beyond the rather cosy media-centric confines of Salford Quays. The opening event, as part of the ‘Little Hulton Goes Large’ celebrations, is marked by speeches from the chief executive of The Lowry and the local MP.

Black Mountain features elements with which fans of gothic thrillers will be familiar. Estranged couple Rebecca (Katie Elin-Salt) and Paul (Hasan Dixon) are spending time (it is emphasised they are not vacationing) in an unfamiliar, isolated location. Although they are partners, they sleep in different rooms; one is remorseful for a past indiscretion, while the other is resentful, possibly even vengeful. Oh, and an axe has gone missing.

Although Black Mountain acknowledges the influence of Stephen King, author Brad Birch does not slavishly adhere to the thriller format. Rather Birch exploits the fact that audiences may be familiar with the formula to confound their expectations. Motives and backstories are kept vague so that, although the formula requires one of the characters to go over the top, you can never be sure which one – male or female – will become the predator or prey.  The ambiguity extends to the characters; both seem to be suffering from some type of neurosis, making it hard to guess whether the character of Helen (Sally Messham) – who appears from out of nowhere – is a former lover of Paul who is stalking him, or an imaginary symbol of his guilt, or an articulation of his unstated resentment.

While Birch’s approach to the thriller format is refreshing, it has limitations. As the cast have to keep the audience guessing, they cannot commit to a definite approach, so we are denied a character with whom we can sympathise. The ambiguity limits the tension, so the cathartic moment where you want to shout out a warning to a character never arises. 

While the author seems uncertain about the value of the thriller format, the director, James Grieve, is a full-on celebrant. As the audience enters the venue, spooky dry ice is already leaking into the air, but even so Grieve manages to start the show with a jolt. The approach is not subtle but it is certainly powerful. Plot points are underlined by flickering lights, sudden darkness or dramatic chords. Peter Small’s discrete lighting keeps the characters enveloped in a permanent twilight.   

Black Mountain is a wonderfully atmospheric show that leads to a climax that is dark in every sense of the word.

Reviewer: David Cunningham