This is a play I’m a bit conflicted about. Initially I was sure I was going to hate it. By the end I was hooked, despite a few caveats about the use of perspective.
In the Shadow of the Mountain opens with a meet cute on a train platform. Rob (David Shears) is your average nice guy stuck in a rut and desperately lacking in motivation. Ellie (Felicity Huxley-Miners, who also wrote the play) initially seems like the purest incarnation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl film trope – a kooky love interest who revitalises the male protagonist’s life. Take Natalie Portman in Garden State, Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, or any number of roles played by Zooey Deschanel and you have a pretty good idea what I’m talking about.
Ellie has been low-key stalking Rob since she spotted him on the train. She apparently worried he looked like one of those “suicide bomber murdery types” and felt compelled to intervene. He isn’t – he’s just in a malaise since his girlfriend cheated on him with his best friend. Before we know it Ellie has invited him back to her apartment for a bizarre blend of sex and interpretative dance and Rob has more or less moved in.
Everything about the play suggests a theatrical resuscitation of the type of indie romcom that died at some point in the Noughties (Garden State, Elizabethtown, et. al.). The fluffy cloudlike scrunched up balls of paper; the simplistic white outlines of Ellie’s apartment painted on the walls; the boppy pop/rock soundtrack – it all comes off a bit twee. Slowly, however, we realise this is all an elaborate ruse. It turns out that Ellie is incredibly difficult to be around and most likely has a serious mental illness. What starts out looking like male wish fulfilment turns into a borderline abusive relationship.
Ellie seems to have been watching too many Noughties romcoms herself and mistaken them for real life. “I want to be saved from me and my life and all of it,” she says, “And I’ll save you. That’s the way it has to be”. She’s also chronically insecure and uses a combination of emotional manipulation and battering ram assaults on Rob’s self-esteem to prevent him from ever leaving her. Suddenly the picture perfect set becomes horribly claustrophobic and we’re all willing Rob to get out as soon as possible.
It’s a great bait and switch and is horrible to watch in places. We feel both immense concern over Ellie’s increasingly alarming behaviour and Rob’s inability to escape. Huxley-Miners is an incredibly talented actor and dominates everything about the play. As a theatrical creation Ellie is brilliant, but could I imagine meeting her on the street? Probably not. She’s the kind of larger-than-life creation that can only really exist on the stage.
The problem is that we see everything through Rob’s eyes. When Ellie is forcing him to say “I love you” one week into the relationship and taking swipes at his career, friendships and performance in bed, the majority of your sympathy is loaded with Rob. Ellie’s behaviour is also played for laughs by director Richard Elson, only for us to realise that we’re laughing at someone with a serious mental illness. It’s only near the end of the piece that we get a chaotic insight into Ellie’s head (lots of strobe lights, very Yerma).
Rob does behave appallingly from time to time, and it felt uncomfortable identifying with him to the extent that I did. His character is less developed than Ellie, but that makes it easier for us to project onto Shears’ gruff everyman. Maybe the point Huxley-Miners and Elson are trying to make is that if we do identify with Rob we need to change our thinking about mental health. Too often Ellie seems like a regrettable trap that Rob has fallen into and not a living, breathing woman who is suffering immensely. There are a few moments where we suddenly become aware that Rob’s behaviour is just as destructive as Ellie’s, but Elson and Shears needed to bring out the flaws in Rob’s character a little more.
This is thought-provoking stuff centred on an impossible question: how do you balance caring for someone with a mental illness against prioritising your own happiness and removing yourself from a cycle of destructive behaviour? We gather early on that the best thing Rob can do for Ellie is to end the relationship, but how can he do so in a way that doesn’t make her situation worse? It’s a horrible moral dilemma and one the play doesn’t quite manage to answer. Yet Huxley-Miners challenges our assumptions and takes us to some morally queasy places. Surely that’s a mark of great theatre.
In the Shadow of the Mountain is playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 2 June
Photo: Red Lion Theatre