Originally premiered by the Almeida in a shape-shifting space that the
theatre was temporarily occupying in King’s Cross in May 2001, Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things now returns to London and undergoes another
change of shape, space and place to appear in the West End.
Of course, the mutability of people, places, art and relationships is one of
the principal themes of LaBute’s play, and as it tests the subjectivity
inherent in the transactions and perceptions of its characters to each of
those things, the play itself has now become another item to line up for
consideration of our ever-shifting reactions beside them.
As with David Mamet’s Oleanna, also recently revived in the West
End and similarly testing the limits of our tolerance for an explicit
manipulation of a situation, it’s impossible on a second viewing of this
play to recreate the galvanising surprise of its overwhelming climax. But
this new production not only prepares you for that revelation in markedly
different ways (from a simpler design solution to different musical
punctuation), but also the play’s minutely observed study of human nature
(and nurture) also takes on a different complexion when you know where it's
In the process, the possibly heretical thought briefly entered my mind that
perhaps this was a play not just about phoney art but a piece of phoney art
itself, that cheats the audience into buying into this journey just as
potently as the story has its characters cheating themselves or each other
about where they really stand with each other.
In other words, the joke may be on us as well as the characters. But who
cares when the play is as gripping and potent and funny and ultimately
shocking as this? You’ll notice that I’ve not yet turned to the plotting
itself, an everyday story about a nerdy young man, Adam (Enzo Cilenti),
who sheds his old skin (literally, in the case of a nose that he has
refashioned and nails that he stops biting) and an older coat, not to
mention his only friends Jenny (Sienna Guillory) and Phillip (James
Murray), as his relationship with an art student Evelyn (Alicia Witt)
transforms him not just physically but also emotionally.
But it’s not fair to say more than that for fear of giving it away. And
though the four actors of Julian Webber’s production don’t have quite the
febrile intensity of LaBute’s own original staging (whose performances were
forever preserved in a subsequent film version), the play still exerts a
morbid and gripping fascination, whether you’re seeing it for the first time
or, just as impressively, seeing it again.