For much of Neil LaBute’s 2001 play, receiving its latest revival at the Park Theatre, it seems like a story from a long gone era inspired by those defining but now socially problematic high school movies in which some infeasibly uncool girl – and it was almost always a girl – is transformed from ugly duckling to swan and then accepted by the popular kids, thus able to date the lead attractive boy who has long been her unrequited desire. From Grease to She’s All That, the message has always been that being conventionally attractive and dressed to fit in is the only way a geeky girl will find love. LaBute’s play is from the same period, only it turns the tables, placing a nerdy boy at the centre of the make-over drama, encouraged by the trendy and devoted art student he meets in the campus museum where he volunteers. But The Shape of Things also takes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as its inspiration with a story that only truly begins to make sense at the very end.
The Shape of Things contrasts the experience of two couples, the new relationship between Adam and Evelyn, as well as the long-term connection between Adam’s friends Jenny and Phillip who are engaged. The extent to which they accept each other’s foibles and character traits creates drive in the play, and as Adam starts to transform for love, it puts equivalent pressure on his friends to re-examine their commitment to one another and what they are all prepared to endure to be with another person. That some crossover occurs in this four character play feels inevitable and LaBute concocts a scenario in which a latent feeling exists between Adam and Jenny that the former was never confident enough to broach before Jenny entered into a serious commitment to his best friend. But what LaBute does with this structure later in the play creates the interest even when the scenes themselves are sparsely drawn.
Other aspects of LaBute’s play are, in many respects, deeply conventional as well and may seem a little lightweight as this tale is unfolding, needfully so if its conclusion is to work effectively. The Shape of Things is framed as a traditional rom com, opening with a distinctive and quirky meet-cute in front of a male statue that art student Evelyn is about to deface with a can of paint, her objection, the censorship of his nude form concealed by a fig leaf installed by an earlier and more prudish generation. They invariably fall in love, begin to date and shy Adam learns to make the most of himself, growing in confidence under Evelyn’s influence. Changes to his hair and clothes are quickly followed by shifts in his posture, sexual confidence and self-belief as he becomes the swan that Evelyn encourages him to be. His friends notice the difference and leads to the play’s central tensions as they struggle to accept his new image and the woman that inspired it. Much of what the audience observes is throwaway moments or comments, LaBute plays them down, the concerns of four people with little to worry about except Adam’s new hair which the playwright implies are unimportant even as his characters argue about it. The seeming vacuity only grows as their relationships develop and a new version of Adam emerges.
As a theatrical experience these are minor scenes, a series of small things taking place over the 2 hour and 10-minute period of the play in which the new couple seem to grow only stronger and happier in Adam’s transformation while Phillip and Jenny start to question why they accept each other’s failings so readily and, more importantly, why they cannot get the other to change. Watching the play in some senses is a pleasant if unremarkable deja vu, we’ve seen all of this before in the many similar dramas that have covered this same ground. Yet, LaBute is quite purposeful in seeding this collection of activities, this is deliberate writing, coasting on the knowledge of his audience’s preconceptions and the cliches that start to form as the story unfolds. The simplicity of it, the sparsity in the writing is controlled, creating a surface impression, a shape as the title implies, that belies what is happening underneath as one version of the story is slowly manipulated into a different kind of reality.
As Adam completes his trajectory in the build up to his finale, so too does the story. LaBute has shown the audience everything we need to see at this point and the final portion of the story recasts that, with even the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential moments taking on a different resonance as a new version of events takes centre stage. And there is still sufficient surprise in this ending to want to conceal it even 20 years after it was first performed. New audiences need to go through Adam’s experience with him and then understand the impact of LaBute’s conclusion along with the character.
Director Nicky Allpress’s production for the Park Theatre never tries to anticipate what that outcome might be and it is an important audience management decision if the full impact of LaBute’s work is to take effect, allowing scenes to ebb smoothly from one into the next as the extremes of Adam’s love for Evelyn take him further away from the man he once was. There is no particular sense of foreboding in the production either, no knowing sense of what is to come, preventing the audience from reading anything into the way Allpress and the cast present scenes, so the viewer takes them at face value, just as Adam and his friends do, watching the Adam’s growing love for Evelyn willingly recondition him.
There is a movie-like quality to this play (which was subsequently adapted) filled with relatively short scenes and regularly changing scenarios that take the story quickly to different points in time as the characters move from weeks to months together, and Allpress maintains the pace and flow of these transitions that make the running time pass very quickly. Much of this is aided by Peter Butler’s minimalist stage design, a simple furniture structure with plain white backdrop that doubles as a seat and concealed cupboards for changes of clothes and some of the props that aid rapid scene transitions. Many of the locations are implied, so the show moves easily from the museum opener to Jenny and Phillip’s house and a variety of external meeting places where this story plays out.
And Butler retains a turn-of-the-century aesthetic in the costumes with no attempt to update the play to the modern day. Part of the mystery of the show relies on it taking place in a pre-Smart Phone era with no social media which gives the finale its impact, so Allpress’s production embraces the style of its period setting and the high school movie allusions that come with it. The only significant change is to add an interval, something LaBute instructed against when he directed the original production at the Almeida Theatre, and here it seems a strange addition, making the first section only 45-minutes long, taking the story through the establishment of the central relationship and to most of the change measures that Adam has adopted.
But the nature of the play doesn’t require an interval, running at around 1 hour and 50-minutes, the length of a movie. And the additional pause creates an opportunity for the the audience to reflect too soon on what they are seeing, a reasonably unremarkable love story at this point that, given the deliberately withheld nature of the plot, and means they may not fully understand that there is more to come. It also disrupts the tightly woven dynamic that the writer has purposefully created in the play, a growing interplay of the things people do to themselves for love, the ways in which we create Frankenstein’s monsters of each other, the conceptual discussions of what art is and its political purpose, of suppression and control, as well as reflections on human behaviour that underpin the action of the play. LaBute wants these to inform each other, to build uninterrupted, yet this production breaks them up with an unnecessary breather early in the story.
Luke Newton makes a rare stage appearance as Adam, a role that is easily the most interesting and challenging in the play, undergoing a complete physical and personal overhaul by degrees during the show. What begins as a very astute character role evolves into a more accomplished and stylish persona in Newton’s neatly played comic performance that takes Adam from corduroy-wearing nerd with centre parting and an inhibited manner to a young man at ease with himself, even arrogant about his newly realised physical attractiveness. Newton’s character also blurs some moral boundaries, becoming close to Jenny and distancing himself from his friends as his new relationship consumes him and there is a nicely managed trajectory from Newton who shows Adam grateful and hungry for Evelyn’s attention and nervous of disappointing her to an near arrogance that jettisons much of his former life to subsume himself within his new persona.
Amber Anderson’s Evelyn is a very difficult character to play in some ways and LaBute gives the actor very little on the page. She typifies the ‘cool girl’ character tropes that a lot of 90s teen movies perpetuated. She dresses well, is confident and easy going about sex, devoted to the boy she is dating, seemingly putting his needs above her own and yet is compliant and forgiving when required to be. Evelyn is never placid exactly but she is agreeable, supportive and unphased which can make her seem almost bland in the surface presentation of the story. But Anderson gets to show more of her range in the finale that adjusts and explains some of those behaviours, with a coldness that makes her, eventually, much more rounded.
Supporting roles Jenny played by Carla Harrison-Hodge and Majid Mehdizadeh-Valoujerdy’s Phillip also have very little to them, a couple less well suited to one another as the story unfolds but who cling to the habit of their well-established connection. Harrison-Hodge develops some chemistry with Newton which adds a bit of colour to her role, but these characters exist in service of LaBute’s overall vision and, though briefly present, a conclusion that barely includes them at all. If audiences stay the course with this play there is a mighty pay-off and the presence of Newton in the cast ensures they probably will. With press night later this week, the play’s age and low-key build-up may not satisfy everyone, but it still has a few tricks up its sleeve.
The Shape of Things is at the Park Theatre until the 1 July with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog