Review: Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, at the Arcola theatre

Sean McConaghy as Adam, Anna Bamberger as Evelyn. Photo Maximilien Spielbichler

Sean McConaghy as Adam, Anna Bamberger as Evelyn. Photo Maximilien Spielbichler

It’s a happy coincidence that as Tom Wells’ Jumpers for Goalposts is playing at the Bush Theatre, Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things is playing at the Arcola. Two playwrights with intelligence, artistic integrity and insight but with opposing views, or at least focus, when it comes to the human condition. It’s no spoiler to say that Neil LaBute comes from a darker, more pessimistic place.

The Shape of Things is the story of a brief encounter in a museum that, as these things go, turns into a romantic entanglement. The problem is, not all interested parties approach the relationship the same way. Friendships, self esteem, quotes by Oscar Wilde are under the microscope.

Neil LaBute’s characters want to be good but, overwhelmed by their selfishness, live in a distorted world of neuroses and power play. The mist of myopic self delusion is thick and tangible. Even with LaBute’s acerbic script, the story could have been too nihilistic to care, except the niggling thought some part of it applies to all of us.

Directed by Samuel Miller, the production is pacey, with a detailed focus on interactions that evoke a vague sense of unease. The design by takis is bold and brilliant in its concept: a single statue is dismantled to create furniture and all elements required for the remaining set. The characters obsess about the shape of things, but the things change shape all the time.

Anna Bamberger as Evelyn projects a vacant quality entirely appropriate for the part. I would have liked a stronger suggestion of an emotional centre (even if that centre is self pity and emotional terrorism) but Evelyn remains a mystery. Sean McConaghy as Adam goes through a plausible journey of transformation and wins a measure of sympathy, even if Adam’s choices become more callous the more confident he becomes. sean Browne as Philip is brawny with a subtle taste for power games (his scene with Adam is as disturbing as it is thrilling). Harrie Hayes as Jenny – with her open welcoming features – is the perfect girl next door, albeit a darker, more complicated version.

After you have seen The Shape of Things, go to the Bush Theatre to see Jumpers for Goalposts. It will restore your faith in humanity. After Neil LaBute’s play, you might need it.

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