Review by Harry Bower
Have you ever noticed a friend in a long-term relationship begin to change who they are as a person? Their fashion sense, behaviour, sense of humour, morals even? And what about the most subjective topic of all; art? Who determines what is or isn’t a piece of artwork?
Twenty years on from its worldwide premiere at the Almeida, Neil LaBute’s boy-meets-girl chamber play The Shape of Things returns to London, now playing at the intimate Park Theatre 200 space. The revival of a show which is two decades old might make more sense if I tell you the opening scene features a debate about the defacing of a statue and another about the meaning of art, and then precedes to unravel a tale of body image and identity. Suddenly these themes are as relevant if not more so than when it first opened to an Olivier Award nomination back in 2001.
It’s 1999. In small-town America on the campus of Mercy College we follow Adam, a geeky, overweight, poor student working multiple jobs. Playfully pushing the boundaries of his patience is Evelyn, a perpetually provocative and daring muse and his future girlfriend. The two hit it off and as their relationship develops, so does Adam’s personality. A workout regime, a new haircut, updated wardrobe, even a nose job – Adam is, in his own words, ‘whipped’. Naturally this change in appearance and desirability has a knock-on impact on his other friendships, notably with the final two characters in this four-hander, Phillip and Jenny. Jenny is the girl-next-door one who got away, flirty still with Adam after neither could summon the courage to ask the other on a date a few years ago when they met. Jenny is now engaged to Phillip, who happens to be Adam’s ex-roommate. If not for having once cohabited, it is unlikely they would be friends. You can guess how the four interact romantically with one another, and how that ends.
You may already have picked up on the lack of subtlety in LaBute’s format. Adam and Eve are literally the characters’ names (Eve’s initials are revealed to be E.A.T…), and there are knowing and consistent symbolic moments throughout, with references to Frankenstein, and Pygmalion inspiration in the narrative. I mean – the name of the college is MERCY. This bluntness isn’t necessarily an issue but it does conjure up the expectation that we as the audience should be challenged in some way. That challenge, in the form of a genuinely brilliant twist, doesn’t happen until the penultimate scene, after which there’s only time for half of the cast to wrap their stories in a way which provokes significant and direct introspective thought.
The performances are accomplished, particularly from leading man Luke Newton of Bridgerton fame and his opposite, Amber Anderson (Peaky Blinders and Black Mirror). The pair play with their characters’ emotions with ease – Newton nailing the transition from apprehensive and nervous geek to confident and resentfully self-assured cool kid. In playing Adam with a very British tone of sarcasm yet in an American accent, Newton’s comic timing proves to be exquisite. Throwaway lines are no longer throwaways and the audience warm to the familiar and funny nature of a character constantly embarrassed by those around him. In such an intimate space intricate facial expressions and use of body language which tenses and relaxes to suit the flow of the script are as integral as the words he speaks. Anderson equally adept in her role as stirrer of the pot – chief troublemaker and lover of chaos. The mischievous glint in her eye throughout inspires intrigue and her butter-wouldn’t-melt smile leaves the audience with no ambiguity about why her character can so easily manipulate Adam.
The quartet is completed by Carla Harrison-Hodge in the role of Jenny, and Majid Mehdizadeh-Valoujerdy as Phillip, the ex-roommate. All four actors complement one another. There is a desperate chemistry between Harrison-Hodge and Newton which, when juxtaposed with the distinct (and intentional) lack of chemistry anywhere else, is powerful.
In the programme notes LaBute explains that the script has been polished, rather than rewritten. By keeping the setting in 1999 there is a lack of claustrophobia and edginess that might come with those artistic questions set against the backdrop of more recent statue-related events or protest. That would be a good thing if the characters retained differential – but unfortunately, I think the play slightly falls short here. Twenty years ago, a strong female character, sexually aware and confident in her domination of a relationship might have felt fresh or challenging. Now though, very many of my young female friends in their twenties are strong, confident, self-assured, both sexually and otherwise – it doesn’t feel like the same shock factor is present as might have been originally. We’ve all rightfully moved on.
With some superb casting, authentic costuming, a fizzing soundtrack and effective set design keeping things clinical and bright in true art gallery form; The Shape of Things has plenty going for it. High quality performances persist throughout but the cast are let down by a sometimes-meandering narrative which takes too long to deliver its punch, despite the short overall run time. With jokes-a-plenty and a distinctly British sense of humour laced in the script, this is a production which will leave audiences giggling from start to finish, and some will find the twist at the end completely unpredictable and delightfully devilish. In the play, Adam is bent and moulded into what Evelyn (and society) see as the best version of himself. My only wish is that this production of The Shape of Things had received more than just a polish to be a bit braver, and better reflect the outstanding talent stood on-stage.
The Shape of Things plays at Park Theatre in Finsbury Park until 01 July 2023. For tickets and more information visit: https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/the-shape-of-things
Photos by Mark Douet