Review: In the Shadow of the Mountain at the Old Red Lion Theatre

There is no one size fits all when it comes to mental illness, and in Felicity Huxley-Miners’ In the Shadow of the Mountain we see two very different manifestations in the story of one extremely dysfunctional relationship. First, we meet Rob, who’s just found out his girlfriend slept with his best mate and is so devastated he’s thinking about throwing himself under a train – until Ellie explodes into his life and makes it her mission to save him. One thing leads to another, and Rob ends up back at her place… but Ellie has problems of her own, and as her behaviour becomes more and more erratic Rob starts to wonder what he’s got himself into.

Photo credit: Harry Richards

On an otherwise fairly minimal set from Emily Megson, low-hanging “clouds” made out of crumpled paper covered in scrawled handwriting are an early clue that all is not well – and it rapidly becomes clear that Rob and Ellie’s relationship isn’t a healthy one, although it’s not initially obvious exactly why. The play is clever in the way it tackles our assumptions, and it’s only as it comes to an end that we begin to appreciate why Ellie behaves the way she does, and that her mood swings and manipulative behaviour aren’t something she can control. The seemingly unrealistic intensity of the relationship – eight days in the two are already talking love and marriage – also makes more sense with the benefit of hindsight, although it’s still never quite explained why Rob stays as long as he does, when he’s clearly uncomfortable with the speed at which things are moving and his increasing isolation from friends and family.

It’s interesting to note that although the play does make it clear Ellie isn’t well, the only way we know the exact cause – Borderline Personality Disorder – is through the notes in the programme; her diagnosis is never given in the play itself. This is obviously a deliberate decision, since Rob asks outright and Ellie declines to answer, and in some ways it feels right to avoid sticking a label on her. That said, the play’s final scene feels underdeveloped, and perhaps misses an opportunity to raise awareness of a condition that can so easily be misinterpreted.

Photo credit: Harry Richards

There’s also an issue with balance in the story, which becomes increasingly focused on Ellie, leaving Rob and his problems rather out in the cold. Both Felicity Huxley-Miners and David Shears give good performances, and it’s refreshing to see a play about a toxic relationship where the male character doesn’t have the upper hand. But with Ellie stealing pretty much every scene as everyone waits to see what she’ll do next, we get to know little about Rob as a character – which is perhaps why it’s so difficult to put a finger on why he sticks around as long as he does.

In the Shadow of the Mountain takes important steps towards raising awareness of the broad spectrum of mental illness, and Borderline Personality Disorder in particular, and Richard Elson’s production does a good job of capturing, at different moments, the emotional turmoil experienced by both Rob and Ellie. There are areas of the play that could benefit from some more development, but the potential is clearly already there for a powerful and challenging piece of theatre.

In the Shadow of the Mountain is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 2nd June.

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Review: Scratch the Surface: The Female Playwright at The Bread and Roses Theatre

The third Scratch the Surface event from Instinct Theatre produced a collection of five very different pieces, with one thing in common: they were all created by women. Covering a range of themes from mental illness to manspreading, the evening brought together an enjoyable and innovative showcase of new writing talent.

Written and performed by Amelia Sweetland, Sharp Edges (directed by Nathan Theys) got the ball rolling with a portrayal of anxiety that’s all too recognisable. Sophie’s having a party, even though she doesn’t really want to – but she’s invited her boss and can’t back down now, despite being almost paralysed by anxiety. And the only person she can talk to about it all… is herself. Gentle humour and extreme Britishness collide with the desperate poignancy of a young woman who knows her irrational fears and lifelong need for perfection are holding her back, but is powerless to get past them.

The second piece, #iAmResilient by Lucrezia Pollice, was easily the most ambitious, combining theatre with audiovisual content to paint a picture of millennial life. Using a screen to show us text, Tinder and Facebook conversations is an inspired touch, given that most of us probably have more interactions on screen than in person these days. That said, future performances could definitely benefit from a bigger screen, to allow everyone to see what’s happening. The piece covers several themes but its main focus falls on Maria, and an honest exploration of the impact of her mental health issues on her relationship with her housemates. #iAmResilient has some interesting ideas, but definitely feels like a snippet of a longer piece, so it will be interesting to see how it develops from here.

Maternity by Stephanie Silver is a comedy, but even this very funny piece has a sting in the tail. Laura’s about to leave work to have a baby, but is anxious that she won’t make a good mum. Even so, her well-intentioned friend Kate is determined to give her a good send-off, whether she wants one or not. In a clever twist, the play sets up the two characters then, without warning, turns our opinions of them on their head. We’re still laughing, but now it’s tinged with a hint of sadness on one hand, and shock on the other. Even so, Laura’s honesty about her fears – however exaggerated in this case – is actually quite refreshing in a world that constantly sells the idea all women are natural mothers.

Saturday Night (directed by Laura Clifford), one of six monologues from Francesca Mepham’s collection No One Wants a Pretty Girl, finds Amber sitting alone at home watching Doctor Who. She’s just split up from her boyfriend (again) and can’t seem to connect with her friends, who just want to go out every weekend rather than catch up with her. A short but heartfelt monologue about loneliness and not quite fitting in, this is a piece of writing that reaches out to anyone who’s ever found themselves in Amber’s shoes – getting pulled back into an unhealthy relationship just for the sake of feeling loved.

And finally, the evening ended on a raucous note with Manspreading by Laura Hall (directed by Niamh Handley-Vaughan), in which the drunken conversation of three young women on a night out turns to the antisocial habit that is manspreading. More specifically, they’re outraged by the fact that it should be the exclusive domain of men – like Yorkie bars all over again, as one of them points out. It’s all very lighthearted and over-the-top, but the play does raise some interesting discussion points about gender roles and differing social interpretations of male and female body language, which seem particularly relevant in light of recent media events.

It’s always interesting to see new writing at such an early stage in its development, and on this occasion particularly exciting to see it all coming from female playwrights. Once again, Instinct Theatre have put together an  evening that provided its audience with plenty of food for thought, but also five talented writers to keep our eye on in the future.

For future Scratch the Surface events, follow @InstinctTheatre on Twitter.


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Interview: Instinct Theatre, Tea and Good Intentions

Lily Driver and Felicity Huxley-Miners co-run Instinct Theatre, whose original play, Tea and Good Intentions, comes to the Kings Head, Islington, for two performances in February. The play, written by Felicity, continues the company’s theme of topical and powerful theatre, with a look at the very first meeting between Adar, a Syrian migrant, and Margaret, a middle-aged housewife who has tentatively opened her home to him.

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“Felicity and I met at drama school, Italia Conti, aged 18, on the acting course,” says Lily. “We started Instinct Theatre to create our own work and hoped for exposure, but we were surprised by the vast number of roles we ended up playing within the company. However the business, social, IT, writing and marketing skills that have developed as a product of running Instinct Theatre have been a happy bonus!

“I directed our first play, Sartre’s No Exit, in a small venue in Surrey in mid-2015. Felicity played one of the female leads. We had no budget and no real expectations of how it would go, but it was a sell-out run and we received great reviews. We decided to make Instinct Theatre official, and it bloomed from mostly passion, and trial and error.

No Exit was set in the round and the idea was to draw the audience in and make for a thought-provoking piece. This idea of wanting to affect the audience is how we reached our ethos of creating powerful and relevant theatre, addressing topics that are featured highly in current media. I don’t believe that the media has the best impact on people’s education on topics such as the Syrian migrant crisis; however this is where the vast majority receive their information. We wanted to create an entertaining, moving and informative play to give a wider view on the topic.”

In light of recent events, this is more important than ever. “Although President Trump’s drastic decision to ban seven nationalities from entering the US has faced a massive backlash from all over the world, there are vast amounts of people that would argue this is the correct decision – and this is due to manipulation by the media,” argues Lily. “However, last year there were 372 mass shootings caused by Americans in the US, killing 475 people. The recent list of nationalities banned from entering the US have caused zero fatal attacks. Two attacks were carried out by individuals with ties to the seven countries: the 2006 UNC SUV attack, and the 2016 Ohio State University attack. Neither of those plots resulted in American deaths.

“You can’t get more current than Tea and Good Intentions. A Syrian refugee is rehoused by a middle aged northern lady in a village in the north of England. It’s a touching and affective comedy that’s been featured in several new writing scratch nights in London, with wonderful reviews and comments such as, ‘All the components are there for a classic comedy.’ The first time a scene from the play was included in a new writing scratch night, the audience found it hilarious and really soaked up the details and characters of the play. And that’s when we realised that even when exploring serious issues, people are most perceptive when being entertained – which is the reason why the play was written in full as a comedy.”

Since the new writing scratch nights, there have been some changes: “We have a whole new experienced cast, and have also had the pleasure of working with a Syrian who came to England as a refugee and will now be performing in Tea and Good Intentions,” says Lily. “We were thrilled when Baraa Halabieh got in contact with us and said he wanted to be involved. Little did we know at this stage, Baraa had been very busy in the acting world since he arrived only nine months ago. And although he had no previous acting experience we learned quickly that he was very talented and an incredible asset to us.

“We’re also very excited to be working with director Adam Morley. Adam is an award-winning film and theatre director who’s worked extensively touring in the UK, on the West End and for Baroque Theatre Company. We met about a year ago at a workshop he was doing for Actor Awareness, and will also be co-producing a Greek comedy, Lysistrata, with him in autumn of this year.”

Book now for Tea and Good Intentions on 11th and 24th February at the King’s Head Theatre.

To find out more about Instinct Theatre, visit their website, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

Review: Scratch the Surface: The World Today at the Hen and Chickens

Instinct Theatre’s first new writing night at the Hen and Chickens brought together four pieces of work around the theme “The World Today”. It’s a broad topic, and the plays being showcased were, unsurprisingly, pretty diverse. From the personal to the political, it was an evening of high quality new writing, with uniformly strong performances. Interestingly, regardless of their subject matter each of the four captured an element of both comedy and tragedy – which I suppose is very much like the world today. And more importantly, they all left me wanting to see more.

First up was Besides The C by Francesca Mepham, in which a young woman recently diagnosed with cancer struggles to cope in the face of her boyfriend’s cold indifference. The strength of this play, directed by Michelle Payne, lies in its balanced view; there’s no doubt whose side we’re supposed to be on, and James (John Dayton) freely admits his primary concern is how Natalie’s news affects him. But his honesty, and the fact he’s allowed to have a say at all, is actually quite refreshing – and at the same time, Natalie (Leanne Petitt) isn’t perfect either; terrified of being alone through her cancer treatment, she stays with James despite knowing they don’t have a future. So who’s using who?

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This was followed by another equally insightful perspective on a flawed relationship, in Jonathan Skinner’s Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow. Directed by Hilary Burns, the play introduces us to a nameless couple (Felicity Huxley-Miners and Harrison Trott) forced to confront the fact they’re officially on the rocks. It’s much lighter in tone than the previous play – and provided arguably my favourite quote of the evening: “This is like walking through mud in flip flops” – but there’s a feeling of sadness too as the couple teeter on the edge, taking progressively more savage swipes at each other. Whether they hang on or go over… we’ll have to wait to find out.

The evening then took a turn towards the political in Guerrilla Kingdom by Saria Steyl, in which two young women carry out a terrorist attack. Or at least they would, if they could stop bickering and remember which button to press. Under the direction of Thomas Attwood, Laura Lawrence and Marina Tapakoudes give two brilliant comic performances as the incompetent rebels, but behind the laughter there’s sincere passion. We don’t know exactly who or what the women are fighting against, but an emotional recital of their mission statement shows how deeply their cause matters. And as with any play involving an explosive device, there’s also a certain degree of suspense involved…

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Finally, we enjoyed an excerpt from Tea and Good Intentions by Felicity Huxley-Miners, directed by Dominique Gerrard. Student Elizabeth (Lily Driver) arrives home from uni to discover her mum’s taken in a Syrian refugee, much to the scandalised delight of the neighbours. While the play pokes good-natured fun at the misguided intentions of the middle-aged Margaret (Catharine Humphrys) and Mary (Erin Geraghty), it also makes a serious political point about what makes someone leave everything and become a refugee (hint: it’s not our benefit system). Yusuf Bhaimia gives a particularly powerful performance as the nonplussed Adar, who seems at first sight to have swapped one kind of trauma for another.

Each of the four plays featured in Scratch the Surface is complex and sensitively written, exploring different aspects of the world we live in. With enjoyable hosting from actor and presenter Paul Lavers and lively discussion in the bar afterwards, the scratch night was undoubtedly a big success; hopefully it’s the first of many.


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