Review: The Shape of Things, Arcola Theatre

“Art has to be created, no matter the cost”

What price art? How far and fearlessly should one be allowed to pursue artistic ambition? The arguments may recall the more recent debates to try and protect the arts in the never-ending rounds of funding cuts in the name of austerity but they also form the basis of Neil LaBute’s 2001 play The Shape of Things, first seen at the Almeida before making it to Hollywood and revived here by Samuel Miller in the gloom of the Arcola’s basement Studio 2.

It’s a play to see unspoiled if you can, the plot hinging excellently on its grand reveal. Suffice to say that there’s more than meets the eye to this tale of Adam and Eve – this Adam is a scruffily nerdish art gallery, this Eve(lyn) is a modish art student who picks him up in the middle of a protest against a sculpture he’s meant to be watching, and their Garden of Eden the relationship that thus blossoms and sees him transform almost beyond recognition.

The serpent though is human nature itself, in all its self-regarding vicissitudes and viciousness. For try as they may, neither can escape their innate selfishness as they are sucked into the vortex of their journeys, heedless of the collateral damage to anyone, including Adam’s friends Philip and Jenny who are drawn into the drama. LaBute acutely observes the cult of the superficial that reigns supreme in contemporary culture and the late discussion about the nature of art is certainly persuasive.

This production lacks a little of the necessary depth to really make this most of acerbic of writing fly though. Takis’ striking design of a dominating bright blue torso, which dissembles into the furniture for the subsequent scenes, is well-conceived but results in an awful lot of shuffling around in the pace-sapping scene changes. And Anna Bamberger’s Evelyn doesn’t quite nail the irresistible charisma needed to make her the driving force of so much change, crucially missing the sexual charge with Sean McConaghy’s Adam.

McConaghy is very good though, cleverly portraying a discernable progression through the process, and his interactions with Harrie Hayes’ winningly naïve Jenny and Séan Browne’s physically impressive Philip are much more effective, Adam and Philip’s showdown is particularly effective in this intimate space. As an introduction to the play, this production serves the material well; for those familiar with the story, it may prove a more difficult sell. But as LaBute reminds us, what is true for me may not be true for you.

Running time 100 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Maximilien Spielbichler
Booking until 21st December

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