The Shape of Things

Neil Labute
Trish Wadley Productions in association with Park Theatre / Original Theatre Online
Park Theatre

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Majid Mehdizadeh-Valoujerdy, Amber Anderson, Luke Newton and Carla Harrison-Hodge Credit: Mark Douet
Majid Mehdizadeh-Valoujerdy and Amber Anderson Credit: Mark Douet
Luke Newton and Carla Harrison-Hodge Credit: Mark Douet

The ever-resourceful Original Theatre Company has a knack of picking intriguing but challenging small-scale productions for online delivery. Their latest release is a revival of Neil Labute’s 2001 play, The Shape of Things.

The American playwright and filmmaker has been consistently controversial and this play, which enjoyed its world première at the Almeida Theatre with a cast that included Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz, both of whom also appeared in the film, is no exception.

It is interesting to see a work from a writer whose reputation has been as a promoter of muscular masculinity directed by Nicky Allpress, with the promise of a softer, more feminine-friendly slant then the original production which he directed himself.

The initial premise for a work set in a small town somewhere near Chicago runs to 1¾ hours and is deceptively simple. Geeky Adam, portrayed by Majid Mehdizadeh-Valoujerdy, is a highly-strung, insecure English student moonlighting in an art museum. In the opening scene, the youngster finds himself bowled over by postgraduate art aficionado and activist Amber Anderson as Evelyn, a woman so confident that she comes across as frightening. Soon, the unpopular and unfashionable Adam finds himself restyled into something that Carla Harrison-Hodge’s mutual friend Jenny refers to as “hot”.

In parallel with the main pairing, bland Jenny and Luke Newton in the role of her obnoxiously bombastic boyfriend Philip, the kind of man for whom what should be pleasant conversation can seem like an interrogation by the Spanish Inquisition, are preparing to marry underwater (don’t ask).

It doesn’t take long for viewers to realise that the couples might have been far happier swapped around, since each features a worryingly overbearing member threatening to bully their more obsequious partner.

Anyone who knows their Chekhov will realise that, while there is no gun sitting around waiting for its cathartic moment, to mix metaphors, there is an obvious Hitchcockian McGuffin in early bedroom scene. Even those who saw the play or film on their releases two decades ago, will almost certainly quickly recall the dénouement to which The Shape of Things is inevitably heading, but that hardly diminishes the impact when the metaphorical shot obliterates its target.

The close-up camera appears to do the actors performing for a live audience on stage few favours, the two subsidiary characters in particular seeming close to caricature, while the acting has a general tendency to veer towards the performative rather than naturalistic.

This play still has the power to shock 20 years on in the age of #MeToo and could prove not only unsettling but distasteful to some viewers. Even so, with its exploration of gender politics and the nature of art, The Shape of Things makes for compelling viewing and will inevitably leave patrons, whether in a theatre or on a couch, with plenty to chew over and discuss, which is the mark of the best drama.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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