Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things begins in familiar rom-com territory. Feisty art student Evelyn intends to vandalise a nude statue whose ‘thing' has been covered up (in an oblique reference to the play's title): ‘the shape of it ... said it was too life-like'. She also hits on gallery attendant Adam, and during their subsequent affair he is transformed, losing weight, dressing more fashionably, and even having plastic surgery on his nose.
It's Pretty Woman for nerdy guys. This story is counterweighed by the deterioration of the relationship of Adam's soon-to-be-wed friends Jenny and Philip – not helped when the newly confident Adam acts on his long-held feelings for Jenny. By the end of the play, the engagement is off and Adam (following an ultimatum from Evelyn) is no longer speaking to either of them. But there is a twist in the tale of Adam and Evelyn (geddit?), after which the audience has to rethink how ‘life-like' most of what they have been watching is.
Elizabeth Wright's thought-provoking set, it becomes apparent, has been posing this question all along, as two of its walls are covered by what looks like an artwork composed of random statements. The audience eventually realises they are lines from the play.
Director Jez Pike does a good job of maintaining the flow of LaBute's punchy, overlapping speeches, and the energy is kept up with some nicely choreographed scene changes.
Ben Askew's Philip eventually matures into a nicely-turned study in insecure masculinity. Heather Saunders as Jenny is touchingly out of her depth with everybody else in the play, her own personal growth coming at a heavy price. The two leads make the most of the studio's intimacy to give performances of compelling subtlety and depth.
Every stage in the accelerated transformation of Peter McGovern's Adam is completely believable. Sophie Melville's Evelyn too has many layers, captivating when she wants to be, chilling when she doesn't; it is difficult to believe from her performance that this season is Melville's first professional theatre engagement.
Perhaps some choices made (including, in the penultimate scene, the video screens) tilt the audience's sympathy rather too much in Adam's direction, keeping the play closer than it need be to a story of victimhood.
But overall, this production is a splendid vindication of Theatre by the Lake's policy of trusting young talent, and provides a gripping and provocative journey through what love might do to (or for) you.