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 going to.
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.
- Mark Shenton