Patrick Swain’s new play is a strange one in terms of genre. It seems to open as a skilful psychological thriller with a touch of horror, before entering sitcom territory with nutty flatmates and arguments over Capri-Suns, then hurtling into sci-fi, fantasy and social commentaries, and finally landing on a rather saccharine note. There are lots of good things here, but I left a little baffled.
Strong, snappy, funny and varied, both in its darker and lighter scenes.
It concerns a psychotherapist, Jude, who sees parallels between her patient Thomas (who experiences voices and visions of a religious variety) and John Doe, the eccentric housemate of her girlfriend Sarah, a man who spends his days lying on the floor, annoying Sarah and claiming to be God.
Swain has a real talent for dialogue. It’s strong, snappy, funny and varied, both in its darker and lighter scenes. He has also, generally, shaped his characters well, though the figure of the straight-man doctor determined to ‘crack’ a stubborn oddball – as showcased in the buttoned-up, fiercely sensible Jude – seems an overly familiar device.
The script is supported by some terrific actors. Olivia Denton portrays Jude with authority and clipped diction, while Siobhan McCauley is a bright, briskly charismatic Sarah. James Murphy as John, suited, spouting cynical one-liners and playfully pausing time, smacks of Doctor Who, and is consistently entertaining. Sam James is left picking up the most minor roles, yet shows fantastic comic timing and polished delivery, and Swain, having stepped into the role of Thomas previously vacated by Ben Mallett, is gripping to watch, speaking every line with conviction and a haunted anxiety.
They are all well directed by Jasper Frost, with an effectively used minimal set. The opening scene between Jude and Thomas in therapy, sitting far away from each other, separately lit and intensely dramatic, is excellent. The tech throughout is an atmospheric delight, with hair-raising soundscapes in the pre-set and in John’s stopped-time world. The monochrome costumes, however, don’t seem appropriate when the characters are so diverse and colourful, and give off an unwanted whiff of A-level Drama.
It’s the plot that really lets it down – not the writing, but the plot. It gets very muddled. Is John supernatural or not? How seriously should we be taking any of it? And I’ll admit to being confused as to what happens at the end. I’ll leave these ambiguities as a challenge to other audience members who may well keep up with it better than I did, but there’s definitely some convolution and odd changes of tone that prevent NEON from living up to the obvious talent of Swain, Frost and their cast.