Written in 2001, Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things is the product of a time when debates about the artistic value of unmade beds were still splayed across the covers of tabloid papers; when Sensation was still sensational. Today it has lost some of its profundity, but sparky performances and snappy direction ensure this revival has enough buoyancy and humour to float.
After a meet cute in an art gallery, Adam, effectively a non-Jewish Woody Allen who quotes Oscar Wilde and is clad in a corduroy jacket and square glasses, embarks on a relationship with the mysterious Evelyn, a beguiling art student clad in Y2K chic. He sheds his nebbish persona and metamorphosises into an all-American jock. With his newfound swagger he cheats on Evelyn with Jenny who is dating Adam’s old roommate Philip, another hypermasculine jock who wears sunglasses on his head as if he were an extra in Top Gun.
Uneven writing causes problems throughout. It is difficult to gauge whether this is a parody of Disney Channel teen dramas or another addition to the genre. Some moments proudly lavish in a tongue in cheek shabbiness, Philip is consistently written and played as a plastic airhead for laughs. Fine. But other moments want to be a serious meditation on the nature of art and love. There is no room for both somewhat immiscible tones and the production suffers as a result.
The final reveal feels particularly jarring. It is obviously intended as a 21st century take on Pygmalion, but it’s gender dynamics, desperate to subvert and goad, feel flat.
One suspects it would have been punchier when the play premiered in 2001. Society has thankfully evolved beyond simple taxonomies of nerds and jocks. Masculinity and patriarchal power dynamics are far more heterogeneous to the extent that drawing the divide between people who read books and people who play sports feels too naively crude to garner any nuanced conclusions.
Thankfully a strong cast, including Bridgerton’s Luke Newton and Peaky Blinders’ Amber Anderson jazz up the more naval gazing moments and push the play in the direction of campy fun. The ensemble garner warm chemistry and give life to some of LaBute’s more unintentionally cringey lines of dialogue: after being confronted by his infidelity Adam cravenly says he couldn’t help himself. Evelyn’s cold manipulative response, delivered deadpan and without a morsel of irony: “that’s what Hitler would have said.”
The cast are aided by director Nicky Allpress who keeps the pace electric. Scenes are speedily intercut, linked with MTV style music to bring the teenage hormones up to boiling point. It results in a curious interplay: here is a solid production of a questionable play.
The Shape of Things runs at The Park Theatre until 1st July