DANIEL LUBIN reviews In the Shadow of the Mountain at the Old Red Lion Theatre.
In the Shadow of the Mountain opens with Ellie grasping Rob from the edge of the tube platform as he teeters on the brink of suicide. The ensuing conversation is comically bizarre. Writer and actor Felicity Huxley-Miners perfectly captures Ellie’s manic yet charming character, and David Shears plays Rob clumsily navigating her excited urge to help him. The two of them inevitably disappear to bed together soon after. The show follows the unrelenting turbulence of a relationship between two individuals traumatised by past romances, and sets itself up to discuss the experience of those struggling with mental health problems, and of those striving to support loved ones. This expectation remains, however, unfulfilled. In reality Rob seems only slightly upset at best, and Ellie’s Borderline Personality Disorder, while at the centre of the narrative, is unexplored. In this capacity Shadow fails to engage with the issues it claims to and instead implies a deeply problematic message.
Fundamentally, it is difficult to engage with the duo’s relationship given the unrealistic speed with which it escalates. There is no trajectory: once past the sexy absurdism of their initial hook-up, they’re quickly in love. Their interactions quickly become monotonous cycles around misunderstandings and Ellie’s fluctuating moods as she irrationally leaps between adoration and rejection of Rob. Ellie is unpredictable and erratic, promising to help Rob live life to the full – her quick proposition of sex is a prime example of this. She shows herself to be genuinely caring and genuinely manipulative in equal measures. At the heart of it, she’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The use of this trope makes it easy to avoid proper engagement with mental health, since her irrationality is not a symptom of her BPD but rather just of her character – indeed that BPD is what she’s suffering from is only stated in the play’s description and not the script itself. Rob breaks up with her only when her eccentricity, exactly what attracted him in the first place, becomes too much for him to handle. His recommendation that she get help is just a side-note, advice to make her easier for him to continue seeing. This problematic angle with which he addresses her mental health is framed as thoroughly reasonable and even a challenge for Rob that demands sympathy.
In treating their situations with equal seriousness and legitimacy the writing aggrandises Rob’s quite non-existent struggle and fails to treat Ellie’s genuine mental health problems with the delicacy they need. For example when Rob hits Ellie in response to her provocation, she immediately apologises for her behaviour – they are presented as mutually destructive, forgoing the fact that this is an instance of abuse. Similarly when Ellie is on the verge of suicide and Rob storms out challenging her to go through with it, the following scene shows them sheepishly apologising to each other for not being at their best. That she should apologise for being suicidal is utterly inappropriate. If Rob’s struggle is in supporting a loved one with BPD, he shows next to no impulse to do so.
Suicide is flippantly diminished to either something casually considered on a train platform, or a mere threat, one of Ellie’s various manipulative tactics. Shadow plays into too many tropes to give its characters credibility, and in equating Ellie’s serious predicament with Rob’s problem of feeling a little lost, the writing shows its insensitivity in breaching the subject of mental health. The poster boasts ‘Serious issues. Serious comedy.’; the two are not incompatible, but the fact that here suicide can be quickly considered, reconsidered and replaced by sex exemplifies how the play does not really engage with its themes. While the issues are indeed serious, Shadow fails to deal with them seriously, and instead pays the discourse on mental health mere lip service.
In the Shadow of the Mountain is playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 2nd June. Find more information here.