'The Shape of Things' review — a dark comedy that thrills until the end

Read our review of The Shape of Things, written by Neil LaBute and directed by Nicky Allpress, now in performances at the Park Theatre through 1 July.

Alex Vella Bartholomew
Alex Vella Bartholomew

Strap yourself in, as this is a play to make you think, laugh, and squirm in your seat. Where is the line? That’s the question The Shape of Things asks us. It seems that the line is right at the beginning, when Evelyn literally crosses it. A sign of what’s to come.

Evelyn, played by Amber Anderson, is a rebellious, artsy type. She gives a good menacing glare, chews gum, and gives the impression we’re disturbing her. Scarily intelligent and straightforward, she says things that make you feel uncomfortable but that you equally can’t argue with. Adam, played by Luke Newton, is bookish, does things by the book, and looks like he came out of a book. He wouldn’t think of going "against policy." He wears lanyards like the chains of a hip-hop king. Same, but the opposite.

They meet at a museum; Adam, the caretaker, and Evelyn, the observer of the artwork. She believes she is an observer of "false art" after witnessing a statue altered to have a leaf over the subject’s groin. She plans to rectify the situation by graffiti-ing a penis back onto its rightful place. This wickedly smart play’s opening line is: “You stepped over the line,” and that rings true until The Shape of Things's last breath. This initial scene is satisfyingly intertwined with the climax of the play, their words and subject of attention echoing what is to come.

Anderson and Newton perfectly pull off this comedic, combative, and flirty script. Evelyn ridicules Adam for being a mature student with two jobs: “So, you’re fucked?” Adam counters, “Yes, but I’m educated so I comprehend that I’m fucked.” There are countless moments of sarcasm, wit, and intelligence that stop you in your tracks. The audience eats it up.

Poor Adam stands no chance. Under Evelyn's spell and flattered into submission, he is gently moulded into a fitter, well-trimmed, and more fashionably dressed version of himself. His friends Jenny and Phillip, played by Carla Harrison-Hodge and Majid Mehdizadeh-Valoujerdy, notice the changes.

Jenny is a goody-two-shoes. You have to whisper "penis" around her if you must say it at all. She abides by the norms and is nervous to step over the line. Her fiancé, Phillip, is a "lad" — he likes to take up space, he needs attention, he’s a misogynist, he interrupts people, and he has a history of cheating.

Upon meeting Phillip and after a heated discussion about whether the penis-graffiti-statue incident was a statement, vandalism or pornography, Evelyn succinctly summarises it: “You just can’t stand to lose an argument, dude.” To which he kindly replies with: “Where did you meet that bitch?”

In the second half, there is an immediate escalation in what Adam is prepared to do to please Evelyn. Around his friends, he is embarrassed about it and attempts to defend his weight loss or new jacket with lines like “It’s reversible!” and “It’s their yachtsman line!”, providing great comedy.

Every character is key to this play. Newton shines as Adam, hitting each comedic cue, and delivering a physically impressive performance that creates a full character that feels familar. Mehdizadeh-Valoujerdy delivers a Phillip that reaches beyond the single-layered lad you first meet. You feel sympathy towards this man hiding his real self from the world. In fact, with no lengthy monologues, the whole play flows gracefully and easily, almost like watching a miniseries.

Anderson expertly plays Evelyn ambiguously creepily. Audiences can’t help but feel uncomfortable: Half the time you agree with her, and half the time you want to run away from her. Evelyn demonstrates scientific and artistic extremism with huge moral ambiguity. It’s hard to know which of her points are right, or should be allowed to be seen as right, and that’s what makes it so powerful. Adam calls it from the start: she certainly does cross a line.

The set design, lighting, music, and direction are worth mentions for adding to the effortless feel of this production. Director Nicky Allpress and set designer Peter Butler make use of the actors for set changes, sustaining the natural feel instead of breaking the flow.

The Shape of Things raises a lot of questions about subjectivity and reality and provides few answers. Some would call it art.

The Shape of Things is at the Park Theatre through 1 July. Book The Shape of Things tickets on London Theatre.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: The Shape of Things. (Photo courtesy of production)

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