Paines Plough have taken up residency at the Orange Tree Theatre this month, with three plays running in rep until; March 3rd. Now, I haven’t seen Sarah McDonald Hughes’s How to be a Kid, which is one of the shows, so you’ll have to look elsewhere for reviews of that one, I’m afraid. But I did catch the other two and, for me, I found the results mixed.
But let’s start with the positive…
Elinor Cook’s Out of Love is a passionate, intense, and superbly crafted play that follows the friendship between two girls from cradle to grave. It has nuance, depth – balances comedy with tension with seemingly effortless ease – and in Grace (Katie Elin-Salt) and Lorna (Sally Messham), the two friends, it is held together by a pair of remarkably complex characters.
Elinor maps out this friendship from its first carefree moments with the girls as two young neighbourly playmates, through episodes of fractured family units, teenage rebellion and petty boyfriend jealousies, on to adult years defined by loss and responsibilities, and fallings out and reunions.
Only these scenes are scrambled, not played out in chronological order, and what materialises is the reveal of an imperfect friendship – one that at times feels almost toxic – but one that is powerful in its truthfulness on the bonds that can form between women. Where the deep well of shared experience creates an unbreakable bond that no temporary romantic heterosexual relationship – nor paternal concerns – can ever break.
Also weaved deep into this narrative are powerful themes of the impact of class and privilege, and the profound gap that can open up in benefits, security and life choices when money is introduced. There is a subtle theme of tiny tragedy here, and how the smallest difference in background, the tiniest missteps or small benefits that appear in youth, leads to wide chasms in later life.
It is this that lifts Elinor’s writing from the merely extremely good to superb. And it is supported with great performance by the two leads, and direction from James Grieve that gives these two women space to demonstrate the complexity of the friendship, with its swerves from solidarity to spikiness, and back again. One of the finest one-hour plays I’ve seen.
The issues with Brad Birch’s Black Mountain, the other production in the residency, is that none of the above can be found. All three characters are poorly drawn, veering disappointingly into cliché and caricature, and with a direction that feels more clunky than smooth.
Black Mountain is a Fatal Attraction-esque thriller. Cheater Paul (Hasan Dixon) has managed to convince his partner, Rebecca (Kate Elin-Salt), to come away with him to a quiet, isolated mountain village in an effort to heal their broken relationship. Only their already-awkward time away descends into something more sinister and frightening when spurned lover, Helen (Sally Messham) appears out of the blue to convince Paul to leave Rebecca for good.
With the women, we veer nastily into ‘shrew versus femme fatale’ territory – two tropes that I long to see the back of. One that is accentuated with having Rebecca in flat pants and housewife jumpers, with Helen in cropped denim shorts and tight tops. And even a sharp turn in plot made me feel no better with the women then defined as psychotic. If this was supposed to be some form of reclamation of female power and control, it didn’t work. It was too reductive.
Added to that, dramatic tension was supposedly ramped up with having the stage often plunged into darkness and torches suddenly shone into characters’ faces à la Blair Witch Project. It all became a bit trite, I’m afraid.
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, to March 3, 2018.
All production photos by Jonathan Keenan.