If you are looking for hope, if you are looking for courage, there is a place where you will find both in abundance. In merely twenty minutes and with just two performers Kneehigh’s The Neon Shadow, available on YouTube, tells a story of isolation and connection with breath-taking intensity, beauty and skill.
We begin in a cardboard city, electric tealights flickering behind sketched in windows with small stick figures sat mournfully on the sills. It is a parched and sterile landscape, calcified adverts squawking “Joy Juice”, “50% off” and “Fashion, Dreams, Choices” at the empty streets. It is a reflection of the times in which we have all been living, not only in terms of the pandemic and rolling global lockdowns but also of the vacuous and rampant materialism that consumed our lives in the years before Coronavirus, the world of “just one click away from happiness”.
This world infects the next, the room where we meet The Boy, performed by director and choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves. He is having what can only be described as the bleakest birthday ever committed to film, sat alone in a white room held together by rough lines of thick black sharpie. A single candle in a single cupcake, a white party hat on his head, the sound of laughter and applause as he blows out the flame sketching through Dom Coyote’s soundscape like a distant memory. Decorated with white plastic sheeting and a clock that tells him to “breathe, smile, manifest”, the room is part abattoir, part self-help hellscape. It is a futuristic sanitorium, locked from the inside.
Everything changes when The Boy looks out of his window and sees his neighbour in the room across the street, Edvard, performed by Greave’s real life partner Edwin Ray, tending to his houseplants like a dutiful millennial plant mother. The two communicate poignantly through the glass, using a hand-centric movement language, waving and drawing in the condensation, peeping through binoculars fashioned from fists. The choreography of communication throughout The Neon Shadow is exceptional, drawing on everyday organic gesture to create eloquent, expressive sequences. Shy and uncertain, The Boy retreats in his room to that portal of endless possibility: his laptop. Weirdly sentient, it quizzes him about his love and urges him to message Edvard because “the world moves fast fast”. When The Boy continues to be too shy to make any moves, the laptop makes him a tantalising offer.
“Want to be somebody else?”
Taking this offer unleashes The Shadow, a strangely sexy clown figure who is able to be all the things The Boy is not: confident, charming, seductive. The duet in which The Shadow and The Boy craft a message to Edvard is exceptional, the sound scape breathing in rhythm with their movements as the typed messages appear on the floor, The Shadow sketched out in the room like a living cartoon. A kind of mania develops, The Boy unable to sleep frantically reading and sending messages of increasing insanity. He fantasises about a relationship with Edvard in a duet that moves from first meeting through drunken nights out to a proposal of marriage, the movement sweeping over a song that starts “oh how I would love you, if you were only in the room with me”. It is a euphoria of connection after being so long alone, balloons cascading from the sky scrawled with messages of hope and love taken from collaboration with a Creation Club of Cornish LGBTQIA+ people.
These fragile messages of hope and strength are the core of this beautiful work. As The Shadow becomes a demon that The Boy has to battle alone in his bedroom, the bravery of those balloon messages becomes clear. It is an act of deepest courage to be vulnerable, to be “a heart on a plate”, to seek connection and to so often be denied it. The Neon Shadow, with its expressive choreography, its visceral soundscape and beautiful performances is a song of strength, of power and of freedom. Watch it and be replenished.