Janie and I had different views on the relative merits of the two pieces. Janie preferred this one, finding the tender emotional elements of it more gripping than the psychological thriller.
I was a little surprised that Janie warmed so much to this piece – she is usually very resistant to plays that leap backwards and forwards in time, complaining that they mess with her ability to follow the narrative line. She felt that the way the actors deployed their bodies and their voices made it very clear, most of the time, whether they were children, youngsters or adults.
I’m usually fine with temporal gymnastics, but this play had even me a bit confused right at the end, when the two female characters suddenly acquired names we’d never heard before and pregnancies…
…I heard several people wondering about that as we left the theatre…
…but about 15 minutes later, while washing my hands at Don Fernando before dinner, I worked out that the pregnant duo in the final scene must have been the mothers of the two female protagonists just before the main pair were born.
Very suspenseful, it reminded us a lot of The Brink, in that we see the psychological disintegration of one male character and at times cannot tell the extent to which the images and sounds we are hearing are supposed to be genuine or in his head.
But Black Mountain is also about relationships and guilt and whether trust can ever be restored fully after a major breach.
Great trailer – embedded below:
I suspect that the Orange Tree’s success with these modern plays owes a great deal to the spirit of collaboration; in this case with Paines Plough and Theatr Clwyd. Long may that spirit continue.
Here is a link to the reviews Black Mountain has had – it seems to have divided the critics with some excellent reviews and some indifferent ones. None of these at the time of writing are from this Orange Tree production (which is still in preview), although I suspect that this piece is already quite well honed over the autumn by this production team.
Yet for some reason this piece simply did not press our buttons. Perhaps Janie and I had seen this subject matter covered with more power elsewhere. Perhaps the characters came across as rather stiff and cold to us, rather than the bottled-up emotion that (I suspect) was supposed to be portrayed.
It is a short piece and is (as more or less always at the Orange Tree) thoughtfully designed and produced in the round. So don’t necessarily take our word for it.
Janie and I did not get majorly picked on for audience participation (unlike some), but we did get to read out an item each from the list; “Christopher Walken’s Voice” in Janie’s case and “Christopher Walken’s Hair” (must have been type-casting) in mine.
Back in the late 1980’s. when I read a heck of a lot of plays as my “commute fodder”, I remember wanting to like David Storey’s plays but never enjoying reading them. I wanted to like them, because I knew his son, Jake, at University, which was as close as I got to actually knowing a playwright back then. But I always found the plays themselves naturalistic to the point of being dull.
But I had never seen a David Storey performed and now he has died and Daisy liked the sound of this one and it is supposedly one of his most autobiographical ones and it was the Orange Tree…
…so off we went.
I’m going to guess that this is about as good a production of a David Storey as one might find. Excellent cast, fine young director in Alice Hamilton, whose work we have enjoyed before. (Although German Skerries,which she also directed, was a naturalistic, dull, late 20th Century play which sent us to sleep.) Plus, the Orange Tree “in the round” treatment suits this type of naturalistic chamber play.
But I did find the play dull. It was borderline for me whether we stayed on for the second half, but Daisy guessed, correctly, that the drama would unfold in a rather more interesting way second half. I’m glad we stayed. I’m glad I’ve seen a David Storey. Neither of us will be rushing back to see another of his, though.
We debated this and more over a delicious Spanish meal at Don Fernando after theatre, as is our habit post Orange Tree, making the evening as a whole worthwhile and enjoyable.
I think we booked this because we had booked so little at the Orange Tree of late and because Janie said she’d never seen a Somerset Maugham play. I had to admit that I hadn’t seen one either, although I had read some years ago (and frankly had found them wanting compared with his excellent short stories).
The scenario of this play, Sheppey, Maugham’s last, is straightforward enough. Sheppey is a gentleman’s hairdresser who wins a small fortune in a lottery. The play is set when written, c1933, when the great depression was biting hard for many. Sheppey’s life doesn’t overlap much with the have-nots, but those he does encounter affect him. Sheppey has always thought himself a lucky man despite his relatively modest life; so should his charity begin at home or should he try to spread the benefits of his lucky ticket?
The play is unduly long, with two intervals, in the 1930s tradition of three lengthy acts. It is hard to cut such plays to one interval numbers, but this play really does labour its way through 2 hours and 50 minutes (including intervals). If Paul Miller needs to persevere with the Orange Tree tradition of early 20th century plays, perhaps he should drop the tradition of “hanging on the playwright’s every word”.
Janie and I lost patience with the piece after two acts, deciding to bail out and take our fabada and solomillos dinner at Don Fernando’s at a more civilised hour.
This is a shame, as Paul Miller deploys his excellent directorial skills on a very talented cast to bring as much life as possible out of this play. He also deftly uses Geff Francis as Sheppey’s boss and Dickie Beau as the prostitute Sheppey tries to help, without ceremony but equally without any indication in the text that the boss might be black and/or that the prostitute might be a man in drag.
Still, this is not a great play, in my view (and in Janie’s). There are reasons why Somerset Maugham’s plays don’t get revived much. They were popular pieces in their day, but tend to seem incredibly dated in style now.
In Sheppey, the characters are a bit one-dimensional and it is pretty easy to see where the story is going. Major plot shifts are foreshadowed so overtly, Somerset Maugham might as well have alerted those shifts with neon signs or tannoy announcements. So when Janie asked me at the restaurant to look up and tell her what happens in the end, there were no surprises for me in the Wikipedia synopsis – above and again – SPOILER ALERT IF YOU – click here.
Of course, the character of Sheppey made me think of my grandfather, who was a gentleman’s hairdresser at the time the play was set and written. I wonder whether Grandpa Lew ever saw the play. My grandmother (who coincidentally, like Sheppey’s wife, had been in service before they married) was dying or recently deceased around that time, so perhaps not.
But the play was set in Jermyn Street and performed at the Wyndhams, both within spitting distance of the Piccadilly Hotel where Grandpa Lew worked, so who knows? If he took my eleven-year-old mum with him, I very much doubt if her self-confessed childhood attention deficit hyperactivity disorder would have kept her in her seat for the full three acts.
Our high hopes were well founded. A young teacher descending into psychotic madness does not sound like an entertaining, even amusing subject. Yet somehow this extraordinary play and production indeed entertained and amused, while also bemusing and shocking us.
The cast were all excellent, with especially strong performances by Ciarán Owens as the unfortunate young teacher, Nick, and Vince Leigh in several roles, as Nick’s headmaster and other tormentors.
Vince Leigh I recognised as soon as he came onto the stage, as a nice fellow I chat with sometimes at the health club. I was delighted and relieved when he and the production turned out to be so good. At dinner afterwards, one of Janie’s first, unprompted and highly-positive comments was about Vince’s performance, at which point I told her about the small but pleasing connection.
…but this play, which won awards and all sorts in the late 1970s, must have either come from a lean year (1977? – I don’t think so) or simply aged badly, as some plays do. It simply didn’t resonate for either of us.
Some of it felt like writing by numbers to me – the birdwatchers spot a cormorant impaling itself on some stray wire, presumably the wire is there because of the industrial activity out by the skerries. “Oh dear”, I thought, “one of the characters is going to cop an industrial injury before the 80 minutes is up.”
It didn’t help that I have a slight cold (or do I mean man flu?) on our recent return from Nicaragua – from 30 Centigrade to 30 Fahrenheit overnight is a bit of a shock to the system. I did a pretty good job of stifling the sniffling and coughing, despite the cast members smoking pretty constantly and the smoke machine designed to make the night scenes seem misty being located right by my seat! Thank goodness for the trusty bottle of water when you need it most.
We had other why questions; such as why did the young man stay up by the bird watching hut leaving his young wife to take the injured man to hospital alone? There was a bicycle in the hut which seemed to have been left there for a purpose (perhaps that purpose) but the bike was ignored when crisis struck. Perhaps a change of heart from the writer, left hanging like…
The subject matter had the ability to resonate – ordinary folk in Teeside, caught up in the late 1970s industrial changes and disquiet…but by gosh this is a slow and dull piece. The play had only the faintest echo of the power possible in similar small northern town microscope pieces, such as Stockport by Simon Stephens. Yes, I can see where the influence on Stephens might have come; yes I understand that the industries that were controversially established on Teeside in the 1970s are controversially shutting down now. But 40 years on, leave it to Stephens…or revive a Stephens, don’t try and revive this dated and clumsy piece.
Michael Billington and his good lady were in the house tonight sitting opposite us. Billington is a great supporter of the Orange Tree but I suspect he’ll struggle to give this piece a favourable review – it will be interesting to see what he writes about it.
Daisy struggled to stay awake and was fearful that she might have nodded off while the young man character was bird watching in our direction through his binoculars. I don’t think she nodded off at those particular junctures, nor do I think that Michael Billington nodded off at the times when the binos were pointing his way, although I cannot vouch for the wakefulness of Billington’s whole evening.
We too are long-term supporters of the Orange Tree and think that Paul Miller’s tenure so far has had more rock than a massive outcrop of skerries, but this play missed the mark for us by a long way. We know that financial pressure is a major factor, so these joint productions are doubtless the way. Perhaps this piece will work better in Northern towns (although frankly I doubt it). But in any case, I’d prefer to see more risk in joint productions – better the odd miss that has given a young writer or an emerging theatre troupe a chance, than a revival miss that leaves us simply asking, “why?”.
We seem fated to sit next to the luvvies this year. Last week Daisy ended up with Benedict Wong sitting next to her at The Royal Court. Then earlier this week, she took a call from the Orange Tree , to see if we minded shifting up one seat on our row to make space for an actors’ seat. I’m not sure what would have happened if we had refused this request. Anyway, I ended up with half the cast sitting next to me at one time or another (not all at the same time).
Don’t let the jovial start to this posting deceive you. This was another bleak piece about troubled people in a troubled place. This time the place is Uganda and the story is basically that of a young man who gets himself and his religious family caught up in the persecution of gay people. At no point in the play would you sensibly anticipate a happy ending.
This is only Chris Urch’s second play, so his is certainly a name to look out for in future.
The title, The Rolling Stone, refers to a newspaper in Uganda that acts as a focal point for persecution by naming and shaming homosexuals. You’d need a heart of stone not to be moved by this production and the real life plight of gay people in Uganda (and indeed many parts of the world), which this play puts under the spotlight.